Dawn Roje: Tracing the Metamorphosis of Flatfishes

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On October 27, the third cohort of graduates from the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School—the first Ph.D.-granting program for any museum in the Western Hemisphere received Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Comparative Biology at a commencement ceremony in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. We have been profiling the soon-to-be minted Ph.D.s (read other profiles here, here, and here).

Growing up near the beaches of Los Angeles, California, Dawn Roje never thought she’d enter academia. But passions for SCUBA and the oceans, along with an inspiring ichthyology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, ultimately led her to the Richard Gilder Graduate School Ph.D. program in comparative biology, where she focused on flatfishes, a large group of about 650 species that includes food-fishes such as halibut, flounder, sole, and fluke. 

Dawn Roje

As a doctoral candidate, Dawn Roje studied flatfishes in the Museum’s ichthyology collections.

© AMNH/R. Mickens


Fascinated by the seemingly bizarre characteristics of flatfishes—their elongated fin rays, the migration of their eyes to a single side, and skin pigment cells organized in complex arrays—Roje took on the problem of studying the origins and evolutionary transformations of these features, including what she describes as the “mechanism of one of the most amazing body plan transformations in biology.” (The title of Roje’s dissertation is "Molecules, Morphology and Monophyly: Resolving Flatfish (Pleuronectiformes) Phylogeny and Investigating Why it Has Been So Difficult to Do.”)

Halibut Flatshish

“As larvae, flatfishes appear to be like all other fishes. But then something truly amazing happens,” Roje wrote in a September 2013 blog post from the field.”

Shane Anderson via Wikimedia Commons


Her research took her to Southern California, Mexico, and, in 2013, to the Solomon Islands on the Museum’s 2013 Explore21 Expedition, where Roje managed the lab on board the R/V Alucia in addition to collecting larval and adult forms of eels, flatfish, and jacks for her dissertation.

“Finding treasures during my first two days out at sea is an odd mix of exhilaration and calm,” she wrote from the Solomon Islands last September. “Exhilaration in finally obtaining the specimens I crossed the dateline for, and reassuring in that anything else I collect beyond this point is an excess of riches.”

Larval Eel

Roje holds a larval eel collected on the Explore21 Expedition to the Solomon Islands.

©AMNH


As a Ph.D. candidate, Roje was awarded a U.S. National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, as well as the Richard Gilder Graduate School’s Lerner-Gray Grant for Marine Research.

Roje, who taught high school science after college, continued to teach while completing her Ph.D. She taught a course on the Tree of Life in the Museum’s After School Program for high school students, served as a teaching assistant for an Evolution course at Barnard College/Columbia University, and mentored a high school student who was writing a thesis on DNA barcoding identification of leiognathid ponyfishes.

 

Starting in November, she will become a science instructor at The Spence School in New York.