Grad Student Publishes Research in Respected Biology Journal

Posted: January 22, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Dave Andrews

“Unimaginable,” says Valerie Buckley-Beason about the publication of her research on the clouded leopard in the Dec. 5, 2006, issue of Current Biology.

Buckley-Beason, a molecular microbiology PhD student at Mason, says she had no idea the work she did last fall for her master’s thesis would receive so much attention. “It’s been an emotional last few weeks.”

Not only was her work published in one of the most respected journals in the biology field, it was the cover article.

Buckley-Beason directed the research of 109 clouded leopards by using molecular genetic methods to re-evaluate subspecies divisions and identify genetic variations. She believes the findings increase the urgency of clouded leopard conservation efforts and support reclassification of a new species. According to the Clouded Leopard Project web site, the animal is a wild cat found in the forests of Asia. The name comes from the cat’s cloud-like spots that provide camouflage in the forest habitat.

“We were analyzing a lot of the big cats, and some of the individual clouded leopards were not aligning as they should with the others,” Buckley-Beason says. “This was such a great opportunity to learn in such a hands-on kind of way.”

Much of the work was conducted in the lab of Steve O’Brien, chief of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Md. Due to some cutbacks in O’Brien’s lab, Buckley-Beason sought other funding midway through her fellowship. When she approached Daniel Cox, assistant professor of molecular and microbiology, who was one of her graduate professors, he was more than happy to assume the role of advisor.

“What impresses me most about Valerie is that she’s so humble,” Cox says. “Everyone enjoys having their work published, but she is so passionate about the work she’s doing. She just has an innate sense of how to succeed academically and professionally.”

Maintaining this high level of humility after being published in such a notable journal would be hard for many. Current Biology is a journal within the influential family of journals published by Cell Press in Cambridge, Mass. All of the Cell Press journals are highly regarded within the field.

Buckley-Beason’s research on the clouded leopard provided her with the necessary skills she currently uses in her PhD research on the social structure of spotted hyenas. “Because of her experience researching the clouded leopard, she is uniquely positioned to do this research on such a large sample set,” Cox says.

Buckley-Beason expects to earn her PhD in the spring of 2008. After that, she is not yet sure where her career will take her, but knows there is a lot of work to be done in her field.

“It’s hard to say where I’ll be in the conservation field even just a few years down the road,” she explains. “There will be many new techniques and so much that can be done. But everything we’re doing will eventually lead to an improved conservation plan.”

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