Emília Santos | NERC Independent Research Fellow, Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology


During my master’s degree I studied the gene structure and function of the FoxP gene family in Drosophila and mouse. It was a fantastic project, but throughout its duration I realised that the topic I felt more passionate about was the evolution of morphological diversity. What are the genes, mutations and developmental mechanisms responsible for the emergence of morphological variation? I then moved on to do a PhD on the evolution of pigmentation patterns in cichlid fishes . For my  post-doc, I added one more model organism to my experimental portfolio – the Rhagovelia insects. In this project I studied the genetics, development, and function of a novel cuticular structure present only in the Rhagovelia genus. During the process we described new species and got to name two genes! At the moment, we are focusing on neural crest cells and pigmentation evolution in cichlid fishes. When I am not in the lab, I love to grow my own vegetables, live waste free and play for the Cambridge Cats!

Aleksandra Marconi |Wellcome Trust PhD student


My main research interests lie in understanding how developmental and genetic mechanisms are related to evolutionary patterns. I am focusing on the evolution and development of the neural crest and pigment cells in cichlid fishes.  I am exploring how changes at the level of the genome, gene regulatory networks and developmental mechanisms during embryogenesis can affect (1) evolution of the neural crest-derived features and generate natural phenotypic diversity. When I am not in the lab, I enjoy practicing yoga, running and film photography.

Bethan Clark |Wellcome Trust PhD student

DSC_7537 (3)I am interested in how genetic and cellular mechanisms during development interact with evolution and ecology. My project focuses on how genetic variation is translated into morphological variation: through which developmental mechanisms, and how? I am studying sexually-selected pigmentation patterns using CRISPR-Cas9 knockouts, imaging, gene expression analyses, and agent-based modelling. Outside of the lab, I enjoy writing, open-water swimming, playing hockey with Cambridge South, being environmental officer for my college, and occasionally dabbling in wildlife photography and nature illustration.

Aaron Hickey | Balfour – Trinity College SBS DTP PhD student


My PhD project focuses on pigmentation evolution in cichlid fish. I wish to understand the mechanisms of trait emergence and whether the mechanisms are conserved across closely related species. I will investigate the gene regulatory networks involved in pigmentation pattern formation across development using a combination of imaging, gene expression and chromatin profiling data. Further characterisation of candidate loci involved in the gene regulatory network will be performed through functional genomic work.Previously, I spent time in the biopharmaceutical industry as a process scientist in a GMP vaccine manufacturing facility. Prior to this I completed my MSc project in a synthetic biology lab with Nikolai Windbichler at Imperial college London. My thesis explored a potential effector component of a gene drive strategy for population replacement of the malaria vector species Anopheles gambiae. I completed my BSc project work with Luca Mirimin, optimizing Environmental DNA assays for improved genetic surveillance as a conservation management strategy.

Cassandra Yang | Mphil Student


I am an MPhil student interested in Evo-Devo. For my project I am studying the development of neural crest cells in cichlid fish, both on the genetic and cellular level, using techniques such as HCR and confocal imaging. Outside the lab I enjoy wildlife photography, collecting antiques, musical theatres, and playing drums.

Sam McKay | Mphil Student

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I am interested in how the evolution of our jaws has produced the amazing diversity of vertebrate life we can see all around the world. My MPhil project is an extension of this and I’m looking at when during the process of development species’ facial forms begin to become specific to the animals they belong to. This is taking a genetic approach as well as using more traditional histological techniques to build a picture of how our jaws form as well as discovering when they begin to take on the shapes required for the feeding strategies they are integral to. When I’m not in the lab I spend my time coming up with ideas to adapt science communication to new media, making videos and running the Zoology Museum’s podcast.

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Past Members

Joel Elkin | Mphil Student

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While studying for my BSc, I developed an interest in broad evolutionary questions and explaining the amazing array of morphological diversity we see in nature. I sought a group investigating the underlying developmental and evolutionary bases for animal morphology, and I am now working on cichlid pigmentation development in the context of sexual selection and mating preference. My project uses CRISPR-mediated knockout coupled with imaging of different developmental stages to explore how pigmentation patterns arise. Outside of research I enjoy fencing, travelling, and playing bass guitar.

Elio Escamilla |Erasmus student


After finishing my BSc Biomedical Sciences, I decided to seek for a lab that studies Evolutionary Genetics and Development, topics that I have always been interested in. I joined Emília’s group in the hope of learning and developing my skills in these areas. Now, I can honestly say that I am a cichlid lover and that I would love to keep exploring its morphological evolution in further studies. In the lab I optimised a multiplex gene expression protocol for different cichlid species.

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