DEI Committee UChicago Ecology and Evolution


We want to showcase and celebrate the diversity of identities and experiences of members of our department community

Deanna Arsala 


My name is Deanna, and I’m a 1st year postdoc in Manyuan Long’s lab. My route to academic science is not a “traditional” one. I am a first-generation Afghan American, and my parents came to this country as war refugees. Like many first-generation students, the financial stresses and cultural differences I experienced left me to figure out how to attend college and develop a successful career on my own. I attended college in my hometown of Fresno, California while working in retail selling video games. While I always had a strong interest in science, I had no idea scientific research was a possible career path until a customer of mine (who was buying a World of Warcraft expansion pack) told me that I should email professors about working in a lab. This seemingly random interaction led to a paid undergraduate research assistantship in which I was able to learn about molecular genetics, graduate degrees, and possible careers in science. 

After college, I pursued a PhD at the University of Illinois, where I studied under Dr. Jeremy Lynch. In his lab, I developed an interest in the evolution of development and worked with non-model insects, investigating how early embryonic developmental processes evolve. During the course of my PhD, I became particularly interested in how evolutionarily young genes regulate the earliest aspects of development. I recently joined Dr. Long’s lab in October 2020 and am currently working to understand the mechanism by which new genes arise and their roles in gametogenesis and early development. When I’m not in the lab, I like to read, play video games, paint, and spend time with my two cats.

Santiago Herrera-Álvarez

Grad Student

My name is Santiago (most people call me Santi), and I’m a grad student at Joe Thornton’s lab. I’m from Colombia, and I feel very fortunate to have grown up there, where I had contact with nature from a very young age and fell in love with it. I chose to study biology in college because it was the only thing that felt clear to me, despite not being sure about what a biologist could do — I was in line to become the only scientist in my family. By the end of college, I realized that I could keep researching as a career, so I decided to do a masters’, and I liked the experience so much that I decided to apply for a Ph.D. program abroad.

I’ve always found it hard to focus on only one thing in my research, and I’ve ended up working on very different things — snakes, frogs, capybaras, and now proteins — but each of them has given me new perspectives and opened the door to yet more interesting questions, and I’ve enjoyed that a lot.

As a Colombian, I’m well aware I’ve been also very fortunate and privileged for having had the chance to pursue my passion for biology, despite the country’s high inequalities. Thus, I aim to serve as a bridge for other Colombian (and Latin American) students to follow their passion for research in evolutionary biology.

Living abroad can be difficult sometimes, especially during holidays, and speaking constantly in a foreign language is exhausting, but it has been an amazing experience. When I’m not in the lab, I enjoy doing landscape photography (you can check some of my photos here!) and good reading with music by the lake.

Shengqian Xia


My name is Shengqian Xia, and I’m currently a postdoctoral research scientist in the Long laboratory. I received my PhD at Huazhong Agricultural University in China and joined the Long lab in 2017. Currently, I am pursuing several projects including Drosophila sexual conflict, Drosophila new gene evolution, and rice de novo gene evolution using various molecular techniques, such as CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing, and population genetics. Before I joined the Long lab, I engaged in functional genomics research on Brassica napus (Canola) at the National Key Laboratory of Crop Genetic Improvement in Wuhan, China. I have research experience in plant molecular biology and biochemistry, particularly with those in the Brassicaceae plant family, such as Brassica species and Arabidopsis species. In my previous research lab, I found that a young chimeric gene involved in male sterility is actually a pivotal

I enjoy making friends, as well as learning and discussing culture, science and history with people from diverse backgrounds. I also have my family here. My wife is a neuroscientist and works here at the University of Chicago. We are also raising our 4.5 years old son who is currently in Pre-K. Welcome to find me on 3rd floor in Zoology Building.

Meredith Cenzer


I was born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, to a librarian and a mathematician. I was a kid who loved to stare at bugs. When I was 9, I was very loud during class, and my teacher (Ms. O) told me she wouldn’t put me in time-out if I promised to become an entomologist when I grew up. I was deeply fortunate to be able to keep this innocent promise and follow my curiosity through a bachelor’s in Entomology at the University of Florida and a PhD in Entomology at the University of California at Davis with Dr. Louie Yang. It was here that I made many of my closest friends and began my journey into studying insect-host plant interactions in soapberry bugs and monarchs. I loved my lab and community at UCDavis, but it was also during this period that I really began to struggle with depression and anxiety, exacerbated by the lack of structure, high expectations, and financial insecurity that are all too common in graduate school. I am forever grateful to my counselor during this period, at the free student counseling center on campus, and to the therapists who helped me in my subsequent moves through two post-docs (FSU and UNC Chapel Hill) and in Chicago. They have helped me to approach both myself and others with greater compassion.

 At work, I love watching insects do their thing, coding in R, and supporting the next generation of scientists. In my non-work life, I have been a rock climber for 16 years and play with the science improv team Excited State. I enjoy Dungeons and Dragons and board games that take forever.

Joe Thornton


In college I studied mostly literature but left before graduating. I worked as an environmental justice activist for Greenpeace for a decade. My job was to support communities around the country (and later the world) with scientific and strategic arguments in their struggles against chemical pollution. These experiences made me see science as a form of culture and as a political force in society – one that everybody has the potential to contribute to.

Working on environmental issues got me interested in biology, so I took a few undergraduate courses to complete my degree and really enjoyed them. I decided to become a scientist when I was 30, but I was rejected from every grad school that I applied to because they didn’t recognize my background as preparing me to contribute to science. The only acceptance came from the department where I had taken classes, so the professors knew me. I try not to forget that I got in because, in many ways, I was lucky enough to already be in.

I struggled to find a thesis project that I found interesting and tractable. I remembered how amazed I had always been, while working on endocrine-disrupting pollutants, by the incredible affinity and specificity of our bodies’ receptors for hormones. So I decided to try to study how these interactions evolved. This required me to bring disciplines together– phylogenetics and molecular evolution, biochemistry, molecular biology, and endocrinology. I found that exciting things become possible when you mix tools and ideas from different disciplines, so that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. (Also, I’m not good enough in any single field to make much of a contribution; being interdisciplinary helps me compensate for this.) This is true on a larger scale, too: now that I’m a PI, working with a group of people in the lab with different approaches and backgrounds and cultural identities makes the experience much more interesting and creative and rich and fun, and it helps us all grow as scientists and people.

I started my lab at a public university, the University of Oregon – which I loved – before coming to UChicago. I also love bike touring and backpacking in the mountains and my crazy puppy Walt. My two amazing children Harry and Grace came into my world while I was in grad school; they’re big now but have always been the most important part of my life.

Stefano Allesina


My career in theoretical ecology and in academia, is—as often the case—the result of a series of coincidences. Here’s the first of many. To complete my five-year degree in Environmental Sciences at the University of Parma, Italy, I had to write a “tesi di laurea” (similar to a honors thesis), and I decided to ask for a project to Alessandro Zaccagnini, a number theorist who also taught mathematics to biologists. Definitely an unusual choice, but I had loved his classes. 

Because I could not complete research in number theory for a degree in Environmental Sciences, Alessandro proposed to work either on mathematical ecology or population genetics—and I chose ecology. We enlisted the help of Antonio Bodini and set out to work. At one of our meetings, Alessandro told me: “given that you’re having so much fun with this type of problem, you should consider pursuing a PhD”. I had never heard the word “PhD” before, and asked a few questions. At the time, I was also working full time as a programmer for a small telephone company. I found the work very tedious, and therefore I welcomed the idea of doing something more challenging—at least for a few years (the academic career in Italy is slow, long, and complicated; I had no real hope of securing a job). Twenty years after this conversation, and half-way across the world, I still believe it was a good choice for me.

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