Find a place in science

Texas A&M biology major Annabel Perry ’22 graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biology.

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Each photo tells a story. One of Annabel Perry’s childhood favorites features her as a smiling 10-year-old girl holding a gigantic bullfrog frog, a slightly blurred snapshot of place and time that captures her budding interest in the natural world and her future as a than a scientist – a career path and underlying passion accelerated by undergraduate research and key faculty mentors at Texas A&M University.

That little girl with the bullfrog, however, didn’t start out with all the tools she needed to succeed as a scientist. Perry, who was homeschooled as a child in Milford, Texas, grew up thinking that women were less logical than men, that evolution wasn’t real, and that human behaviors weren’t biologically determined. She didn’t seriously question these beliefs until at age 16, after researching eating disorders in a dual-credit course, she realized that She suffered from a serious eating disorder – an awakening that not only prompted Perry to seek professional mental health treatment, but also instilled in him a desire to understand the biological underpinnings of psychiatric disorders.

“That first experience with mental health care taught me that science can explain behavior and improve lives,” Perry said. “So in the fall of 2018, I entered Texas A&M University with plans to study psychiatric disorders scientifically. Experiences at Texas A&M and beyond transformed that curiosity into a passion for cognitive evolution and showed me that there is a place in the world of science for the little girl with the bullfrog.

Although Perry planned to research eating disorders as a freshman at Texas A&M, she couldn’t find any professors working on the subject. However, she soon discovered an intriguing alternative in the Texas A&M psychologist and neuroscientist Brian Anderson’s labwhich explores how reward and punishment influence learning and attention.

“In this lab, I monitored an automated shock machine and recorded the results when human subjects performed tasks that required a lot of attention,” Perry said. “During this work, I discovered that I was interested not only in psychiatric disorders, but in all kinds of cognitive traits.”

little girl holding a bull frog in her hands

Perry at 10 years old.

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Because Perry’s interest extended far beyond the immediate causes of the behavior, she enrolled in the Texas A&M biologist. At Duncan MacKenzie’s honors the first-year biology course. In addition to learning about evolution for the first time, she says she fell in love with the interconnected mechanics, puzzle solving and predictive power of the theory of evolution and wanted to pursue this. passion in researching evolution.

“I particularly wanted to research the evolution of sex differences, as I had been raised on stereotypes about cognitive sex differences and wanted to learn their biological truth,” Perry said. “So I joined the Texas A&M biologist Gil Rosenthal’s laboratorywhich studies sexual selection and mating behavior in the swordtail.

After learning to use the lab’s tracking software used to study sex differences in swordtails, Perry realized that computer skills would be integral to his success as an evolutionary biologist. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Rosenthal lab to work from home, Rosenthal encouraged all members to start learning the Python coding language. Rosenthal recognized Perry’s potential as a computational biologist and asked him to lead a bioinformatics project to detect variable DNA regions in hybrid billfish.

“I took this opportunity to prove to the little girl with the bullfrog that gender doesn’t determine her analytical ability,” Perry said. “I spent the summer of 2020 teaching myself R and C++. Since there was no program that could detect regions of DNA, I learned R to create my own. But R couldn’t couldn’t handle such large data, so I taught myself the more robust but notoriously intimidating C++ language.The C++ version of my program, Polly, ran successfully but classified the wrong regions as polymorphic. So I fixed Polly, making her correctly detect those regions in February 2021.”

Bolstered by her burgeoning confidence in coding and research, Perry excelled in graduate-level courses in experimental design and evolution as a junior and senior, respectively. Along with starting another C++ program to calculate linkage disequilibrium scores, she was accepted in a summer of 2021 National Science Foundation Research Experiences Program for Undergraduates (REU) at Florida Atlantic University. Fate willed it, she worked with Erik Duboué and Alex Keen — who, by coincidence, has accepted a new position at the head of the Texas A&M Department of Biology while she was in Florida – to study the evolution of anxiety in cave fish. Together, they developed a computer neural network to classify behaviors and used it to quantify anxiety in the Mexican tetra model organism.

“During this project, I was simultaneously making Polly more biologist-friendly by making it accessible through an easier-to-use coding language,” Perry said. “At the end of summer 2021, I finished the REU and Polly projects. I am the first author of the Polly manuscript, which is currently undergoing peer review at Molecular Ecology Resources.”

By the time Perry returned to Texas A&M for her senior year in August, Rosenthal had moved to Italy and Keene had begun her appointment as head of Texas A&M Biology. While simultaneously carrying out his remote Rosenthal lab projects, Perry began conducting a Undergraduate Scholars Thesis with Keene and fellow Texas A&M biologist/computational evolutionary geneticist Heath Blackmon as one of the first 12 students of the College of Science Science Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (SUROP) winners. For this project, she coded a web tool, called CaveCrawler, to analyze the genetic data of the Mexican tetra, an emerging model system to study the evolution of sleep and potentially many other cognitive and physiological traits. A preprint of the resulting publication, “CaveCrawler: an interactive analysis suite for cavefish bioinformatics“, was uploaded to the open access repository bioRXiv in December and since has been accepted for publication by the journal Genetics Society of America G3: Genes | Genomes | Genetic.

“Annabel is remarkably talented and her productivity was at the level of an upper graduate student,” Keene said. “What really sets her apart is her enthusiasm for science and her ability to uplift everyone around her.”

Between semesters in January, Perry traveled to central Mexico to conduct field research with Rosenthal and other members of the Swordtail lab at the Centro de lnvestigaciones Cientificas de las Huastecas “Aguazarca”, also known as of CICHAZ. About a month later, she was the only undergraduate to present her research at the 7th Annual Cave Fish Meeting, held from February 27 to March 4 in San Antonio. She also presented her research and life-changing undergraduate experience at the spring meeting of the College of Science’s External Advisory and Development Board on April 1.

On Saturday, May 14, Perry will graduate from Texas A&M with her Bachelor of Science degree in biology with honors as well as double minors in neuroscience and philosophy. In addition to being recognized as a scholar, undergraduate scholar, and honorary scholar, she was a finalist for the 2022 Brown Foundation-Earl Rudder Memorial Outstanding Student Award honoring top senior graduates from across the Texas A&M campus. This fall, she will go to Harvard University to pursue her doctorate. work with David Reich at the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology,

“Working with someone like Annabel could rekindle anyone’s enthusiasm for science,” Rosenthal said. “When the pandemic hit, we held a weekly Python workshop as a zoom lab. We scoured Rosalind’s wonderful site, which presents each new technique in puzzle form. She left the rest of us in the dust as she solved each puzzle with ever-increasing enthusiasm, until she ran out of puzzles that other people had already solved. Now she applies all her intellect and creativity to problems that no one knows the answer to. His contagious curiosity and intellectual humility are exactly what Harvard needs.

As she prepares to walk the stage at Reed Arena, Perry says she’s not only grateful to be able to stand on the shoulders of many, including her mentors at Texas A&M, but also eager to provide these opportunities. for the benefit of other budding scientists in manufacturing.

“A neuroscientist’s job is not just to study the inner workings of the human brain, but also to help other people realize the power of their own minds,” Perry said. “In postgraduate, I plan to start coding workshops for children in rural areas. My ultimate goal is to run my own lab where I mentor budding young scientists and use computational approaches to research cognitive evolution. Once I have my own laboratory, I will continue this mentorship to show them that they can, like the little girl with the bullfrog, realize their intellectual potential.