New Faculty Profile: Aleeza Gerstein

This profile is part of a series of New Faculty Profiles that highlight and introduce up-and-coming PIs in SSE. We invite highlighted faculty to discuss their research, describe how SSE has impacted their career, and share any tips or stories they may have for other researchers.

Aleeza Gerstein
Assistant Professor, Departments of Microbiology & Statistics
University of Manitoba
Start date: September 2018

MSc & PhD: Department of Zoology, The University of British Columbia. Advisor: Sally Otto
Postdoc: Department of Molecular Microbiology & Biotechnology, Tel Aviv University and Department of Genetics, Cell Biology & Development, The University of Minnesota. Advisor: Dr. Judith Berman
Postdoc: Department of Microbiology & Immunology, The University of Minnesota. Advisor: Kirsten Nielsen

About the department:

I hold a joint appointment between the Microbiology and Statistics Departments at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg Canada, which is the major doctoral-granting institution in my hometown. Micro and Stats are two departments that haven’t traditionally interacted very much, and I’m part of an institutional experiment of sorts to help foster communication and collaboration between different departments in the Faculty of Science. My first class is going to be a Microbiology graduate student module on “Data analysis and visualization using R”.

About the research:

We seek to understand how different ecological and genomic factors constrain or enhance the appearance and spread of beneficial variation, and hence influence the rate and predictability of evolution. We work with fungal microbes, both as a model system to study the genetic basis of evolution (taking advantage of the “awesome power of yeast genetics”), as well as to understand adaptation in these species for their own sake. Fungal microbes have incredibly labile genomes, and karyotypic mutations (i.e., changes in ploidy, the number of chromosome sets, and aneuploidy, copy number change in one or several chromosomes) are commonly observed in response to stressful environments. A major current focus is to apply evolutionary principles to study the acquisition of drug resistance in human fungal pathogens.

Are you recruiting? If so, how do you/ will you choose new lab members?

Yes! I’ve been interviewing potential undergraduate and graduate students. One student turned up to the interview with a full page of questions she thought of while reading the information on my webpage. We had a great discussion about what I’ve previously done and am currently working on and she even proposed a novel method that could be useful. Needless to say, she’s the first official student of my nascent lab!

When was your first Evolution Meeting, and how did it affect your career? Do you have a funny story to share from an Evolution Meeting?

My first Evolution meeting was in Fort Collins, Colorado in 2004, six months after I started graduate school. Although I remember being overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know (a talk about the G-matrix stands out), I also remember a feeling of coming home, and realizing that so many people were interested in evolution and that there were many different ways to study evolutionary questions. I also remember one night a large group of people were going out to a bar and in what I realize now is typical American-fashion, everyone including professors who were clearly well over 21 were getting ID’d. I believe that Peter Keightly was flabbergasted when he was denied entry to the bar because he wasn’t carrying his passport, and was sent back to the dorms to retrieve it.

Do you remember your first publication in Evolution or Evolution Letters (acceptance or rejection)?

My first Evolution paper was last year (Gerstein, Lim, Berman & Hickman, Ploidy tug-of-war: Evolutionary and genetic environments influence the rate of ploidy drive in a human fungal pathogen. Evolution. 71: 1025-1038, 2017). This was a really special paper for a number of reasons. The second author, Suzie Lim, was the first undergraduate honours student that I mentored, and this is the first publication where I get to say that I didn’t physically collect a single data point. It was also a really fun science collaboration, because Meleah Hickman and I had been postdocs together in Judy Bermans lab in Minnesota, and we had a great time analyzing the data and writing the paper together. Every paper I’ve written has benefited tremendously from peer review, and though I’ve encountered many helpful Associate Editors, our AE for this manuscript, Maurine Neiman, really went above and beyond in shepherding this paper through peer review and drawing out a polished version of the story.

Besides research, how do you promote science?

I’m a firm believer that as scientists we have a responsibility to communicate scientific ideas and principles to the general public. I currently sit as a citizen member of the advisory panel on OurWinnipeg, the official 20 year plan for the city of Winnipeg. I believe scientists have a lot to contribute to improving civic life, and was very pleased to be selected for this role.

What one piece of advice would you give to a starting graduate student?

Grad school is such a different experience for everyone in terms of projects, geographic locations and family circumstances—try not to compare yourself to everyone around you or on Twitter. I can tell you why I think I was successful – I found an amazing and supportive advisor that had a mentorship style that worked for me and who looked out for my best interests. I found my tribe, and was surrounded by curious, enthusiastic friends who taught me more by diffusion over beers than any textbook ever could. I always felt supported intellectually and emotionally, and truthfully these same people are still supporting me (and reading drafts of my grants!) even through we’re all scattered across the world now. I wish this experience for everyone. Also, regardless of your project, learn at least the basics of a programming language (I suggest R or Python; sorry, couldn’t resist).

How do you maintain a work-life balance?

I have a two and a half year old, so that helps a lot! I was also fortunate to be surrounded in graduate school by people who embraced a ‘work hard play hard’ approach. In grad school I spent almost every weekend in the lab, but I also didn’t hesitate to head to the mountains for a day of snowboarding if it was a powder Tuesday. As a postdoc, like many people, I found precarious employment mentally draining and incredibly stressful at times. I was able to cultivate a great group of friends primarily outside of academia, and this helped me to maintain perspective on things and get me out of the lab.








Materials used for a single day of a single experiment during Dr. Gerstein's postdoc.










Research origin story: Measuring Saguaro heights during a desert ecology field course in the Sonoran desert.

Back to top