Ph.D. Profile: Jonathan Foox

Research posts

On October 24, the fifth cohort of graduates from the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School—the first Ph.D.-degree-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're profiling the newly minted Ph.D.s.

When Jonathan Foox was an undergraduate at George Washington University (GWU) studying cell biology, he wasn’t quite sure where his studies would take him. Would he go to medical school? Or perhaps pursue research science?

But after he spent a summer studying the diversity of microbial life at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, through a National Science Foundation–sponsored “REU” (Research Experience for Undergraduates) internship at GWU, he realized how interested he was in spending time in the field and analyzing the evolutionary relationships among poorly-understood groups of living things, a field of biological research called phylogenetics.

 

Foox sits at a lab table and looks intently into his microscope.

Foox studying parasitic myxozoans under a microscope. 

© J. Foox


And so Foox, who originally hailed from just outside New York City, made his way to Manhattan’s Richard Gilder Graduate School (RGGS), where he helped determine the first genome of bedbugs, and studied sea anemones and a related group of tiny living things you’ve probably never heard of: myxozoans.

As Foox describes them on his website: “[t]hese bizarre, microscopic parasites are the world's smallest animals, and can be found inside of economically critical fish (among other hosts) around the world.” While some stages of their life cycle can be visible to the naked eye, others can be as small as one-tenth the size of a single grain of sand, Foox says.

Most myxozoans are parasites of aquatic animals, so to collect them for his research studies, Foox conducted fieldwork in watery places, including expeditions to California, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, and Bermuda.

 

Foox squats near the water's edge and holds a specimen cage.

Fieldwork during his time at RGGS took Jonathan Foox to bodies of water around the world.

© J. Foox


Working with RGGS Professor and Curator Mark Siddall, Foox set about trying to understand where myxozoans fit into the tree of life. Since the mid-19th century, it had been believed that they were protists—mostly single-celled organisms that are neither plant, animal, nor fungi, but that they do have DNA within their nuclei, distinguishing them from bacteria and other organisms with simpler cells. However, recent research has confirmed that they are more closely related to cnidarians, a group that includes jellyfish, corals, and sea anemones. That means these tiny animals have structural similarities with animals that are to them as large as Mount Everest is to a human.

 

Magnified view of myxozoan cells.

Myxozoans are poorly understood, and often microscopic, forms of life. 

© J. Foox


But while those animals aren’t parasitic, myxozoans are. Foox’s research at RGGS helped establish how this strange evolution evolutionary turn might have taken place.

Foox spent some of his time at the Museum devising novel computer programs to help him, and other scientists, analyze complex data. One problem encountered by those who study myxozoans is that when you collect their DNA you also often collect the DNA of the host fish or other animals, thereby contaminating the samples. So Foox devised a quicker, computer-based “bioinformatics” method for weeding out the extra non-myxozoan DNA.

“I dabbled in computer programming as a kid,” Foox says, but at the Museum he basically taught himself to code what he needed to analyze his own research data.

Now, Foox is moving across town to the Weill Cornell Medical College, where he’ll continue to use computer science to elucidate the workings of life. In this case, he is joining the lab of Chris Mason at the Institute for Computational Biomedicine, to study, cell by cell, how cancer evolves—and, hopefully, help to determine how it might be stopped in its tracks.