Monday, December 11, 2023

Sofia Sheikh often thinks about how the trajectory of her career has been altered in unimaginable ways.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Sheikh was working at a logistics company in Chicagoland, when she decided to apply to graduate school.

Sofia Sheikh
Sofia Sheikh

As she found out over and over during the application process, there was this little problem.

“I would send them an email and we would start talking. Then they wanted me to send my resume and transcripts, and my GPA was so low that I would hit this roadblock,” Sheikh says. “There would always be a red flag on my application. It was really discouraging, and I was not sure how to get past it.”

Then came the conversation with Andrew Forbes, a biology professor at the University of Iowa.

“She sent me an email, saying she’s really interested in my work because of my focus on ecological speciation, which is a narrow area of study,” Forbes says. “She said she had written a report on the topic in undergrad.  When we talked, she already knew a lot and clearly had a genuine interest in the subject. I was sold in our first conversation.”

As they say, the rest was history. Sheikh was admitted into the UI’s Integrated Biology Master’s Program. Her research in overlooked animal diversity took off, ultimately earning her the Graduate College’s L.B. Sims Master’s Thesis Award in biological/life sciences. Her thesis is titled "Cryptic diversity and evolution in a genus of oak-gall-associated parasitoid wasps."

The L. B. Sims Outstanding Master's Thesis Award is given annually to recognize the excellent scholarship and research conducted by University of Iowa graduate students pursuing Master's degrees.

“(Forbes) took a huge chance on me. I still wonder what made him decide to take a chance on me,” says Sheikh, who is currently a PhD student at the University of Chicago. “I wasn't super skilled at that point, and I didn't have a ton of research experience.”

Sheikh capitalized on Forbes’ faith in her as a graduate student. Results of her thesis, which combined molecular, ecological, and morphological data, overturned more than five decades of a scientific “fact.” She found that O. labotus is not one generalist parasitic wasp, but a complex of least sixteen different species.

Sheikh’s thesis details her work to reach this conclusion.

Sheikh and fellow graduate student Anna Ward spent years picking abnormal growths called galls from oak trees. They brought the galls back to the lab, placed them in a refrigerator-size incubator, and waited to see if the gall would hatch gall wasps, parasitoid wasps, or both.

As the wasps hatched, the researchers extracted the insects’ DNA to examine their genetic variation. They then compared genetic results with the ecological findings and found distinct species.

“We knew the tree host from which the gall was collected, so we had all these traits that we called different dimensions of the niche for these parasites,” Sheikh says. “We combined all that information and discovered there is a lot of diversity both genetically, and in terms of their host associations and ecologies.  

“This reflects how hyper-diverse the world is, and how much there is to be discovered out there. It also informs us a lot about how we understand these relationships to work. It is interesting in the sense that there may be a lot more underlying mechanistic stuff happening that we do not really understand.”

Wasps are predators of pest insects, produce powerful antimicrobials in their venom, and pollinate plants.

“(Sheikh) grabbed ahold of the problem and would not let go. She had that tenacity about her to try and figure things out. That was a main reason she had success,” Forbes says.

Outreach activities support research mission

Forbes helped Sheikh develop her research projects, craft collaborations with molecular biology and bioinformatics researchers, and share science with the community.

To keep from feeling pigeon-holed in her specific research, Sheikh followed Forbes’ lead and engaged in outreach activities. She accepted a paid position with the Iowa City Science Booster Club, which was created to support and improve science education in Iowa City.

“Those experiences were really cool, giving kids and adults hands-on science experiences,” Sheikh says. “We would do experiments at public venues like the Iowa City Public Library, and these kids would just light up when they understood the concept you were explaining. Engaging with the public about science has really shaped my understanding of what you can do in science beyond just your research.”

Undergraduate professors lend helpful hand

As a junior at Illinois-Chicago, Sheikh was forced to declare a major or not be allowed to finish the program. She had taken both biology and humanities courses and was conflicted about which way to go to have a financially secure and fulfilling career after school.

At that point, she had more biology credits, so she declared that her major. Then, she retook a biology course that she failed the first time. Now-deceased Biology Professor David Featherstone taught the course.

“He had an interesting teaching philosophy. A common way to motivate students to learn is through grades, but he really did not care about that,” Sheikh says. “He cared about making students interested in biology. The way this professor taught me, it seemed there is a lot to be known about everything. It got me more interested in science and made me realize that it is not this rigid process with a single objective answer to the question.”

Sheikh also got interested in research after taking an independent study with Illinois-Chicago Biological Sciences Professor Henry Howe.

“(Forbes, Featherstone, Howe) built confidence in me that science is something I can do and be good at,” Sheikh says.