ECR Spotlight is a series of interviews with early-career authors from a selection of papers published in Journal of Experimental Biology and aims to promote not only the diversity of early-career researchers (ECRs) working in experimental biology during our centenary year but also the huge variety of animals and physiological systems that are essential for the ‘comparative’ approach. Amanda M. Palecek is an author on ‘ Integrating biomechanics in evolutionary studies, with examples from the amphidromous goby model system’, published in JEB. Amanda is a PhD candidate in the lab of Rick Blob at Clemson University Department of Biological Sciences, investigating the relationship between form and function in vertebrates and applying these findings to improve manmade bio-inspired designs.

Amanda M. Palecek

Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus

I began my education as an undergraduate at the University of Akron, where I studied Biology and researched gecko adhesion in Peter Niewiarowski's lab. My experiences as an undergraduate researcher really motivated me to find inspiration in nature to solve problems. I moved to South Carolina to pursue my graduate education at Clemson University with Rick Blob. My Master's thesis focused on flamingo wading biomechanics, but adhesion science has always had my heart. My dissertation has focused on the adhesive system in goby fishes, particularly how the morphology of the suction disc affects adhesive performance. I would love to apply what I have learned from these amazing little fishes to improve manmade adhesives.

How would you explain the broader impact of research in the area highlighted in this Review?

When you're doing scientific research, it's easy to get lost in the details. But it's really important to look at the bigger picture to see how you might be able to apply the work to different systems and questions. While our Review highlights gobies, I think the questions that we ask can be applied to many taxa. When an environment presents challenges, how might a species adapt? We can combine approaches in biomechanics, ecology and evolution to better understand biodiversity in many animal groups.

Is there anything that you learned while writing this Review that surprised you?

Writing a review gives you the opportunity to revisit some of the foundational knowledge in your field. This is especially helpful not only as a refresh of the classics but also as a way to update your knowledge with some of the newer papers too. I think that diving deep into the literature can inspire you to find gaps in the field and give you ideas for new approaches to questions that you've had for a while.

What do you see as the main value of Review-type articles?

Review articles are an invaluable source when you're learning about an unfamiliar field. Reviews serve as a mini textbook to outline what is known in the field, who has completed this foundational research, and where the field is going in the future. If I am doing initial background research on a topic that is new to me, reviews are a great place to start. I often use reviews to find the foundational papers in the field and then further branch out with the papers that cited these foundational papers.

One of the Hawaiian freshwater gobies, 'O'opu 'alamo'o (Lentipes concolor), climbing an artificial waterfall on glass.

One of the Hawaiian freshwater gobies, 'O'opu 'alamo'o (Lentipes concolor), climbing an artificial waterfall on glass.

What do you think experimental biology will look like 50 years from now?

I think that AI, machine learning and open access data will play a huge role in how we conduct research in the coming decades. AI and machine learning can make research more efficient and give us more robust datasets, and create models which would reduce the need for working with live animals. This, combined with more open access data, will increase accessibility to conduct research no matter where you work. I'm looking forward to seeing our field advance and I hope that these technological leaps allow more people to get involved in biological research.

If you had unlimited funding, what question in your research field would you most like to address?

I've become very interested in comparing the adhesive structures across teleosts. There is incredible diversity in the form and function of suction discs in fishes, and these discs have evolved several times and from several structures (mouths, dorsal fins, pelvic fins, etc.). I would love to focus in on how these discs compare morphologically across the teleost phylogeny.

What changes do you think could improve the lives of early-career researchers, and what would make you want to continue in a research career?

I think most researchers, whether early career or not, could benefit from a better work/life balance, and being fairly compensated for the work that they do. I think there have been some tremendous movements in the past few years that show promise for improvements in these areas, including increased acceptance to work from home and more talks between grad students and administrations on stipends.

Increased funding for research, travel and living expenses would all help graduate students to focus on their work and allow them to be more productive. There also needs to be more conversation about benefits such as retirement funds, health insurance and parental leave for graduate students and post docs.

What's next for you?

I'm open to a variety of future possibilities! I have loved my time in academic research, and I really enjoy solving problems and the creativity that I'm allowed to explore in my current work. I hope to find a career that fulfills my need to discover and learn while simultaneously providing me with an excellent work/life balance.

Amanda M. Palecek's contact details: Department of Biological Sciences, Clemson University, Clemson, SC 29634, USA.

E-mail: [email protected]

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Integrating biomechanics in evolutionary studies, with examples from the amphidromous goby model system
J. Exp. Biol.