Holly J. Kilvitis

PhD Candidate

Department of Integrative Biology

University of South Florida

Fieldwork capturing house sparrows (Passer domesticus) in Tampa, FL

Celebrating my advancement to PhD candidacy (April 2014) with my advisors and some of my lab mates

Research Interests

I am a PhD student in the department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida. I am co-advised by Dr. Lynn "Marty" Martin and Dr. Christina Richards, whose labs are broadly interested in how organisms respond to environmental stressors via physiological and/or epigenetic mechanisms, respectively.

Effects of early-life experience on host traits influencing disease dynamics

For my dissertation research, I am interested in how early-life exposure to stressors influences individual heterogeneity in the capacity to respond, both immunologically and behaviorally, to infection in adulthood. Specifically, I will quantify Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4) gene expression, the major receptor for Gram-negative bacteria, and sickness behaviors, as both of these parameters are important components of host resistance and can influence population-level processes (i.e. disease dynamics). By understanding how variation in early-life experience contributes to individual heterogeneity in immunological and behavioral mechanisms of resistance, we may be better able to predict which hosts are most likely to contribute to the maintenance and spread of disease within populations.

An epigenetic approach  

Early-life experiences can have profound effects on adult phenotype, however, the underlying mechanisms mediating and potentially maintaining such environmentally-induced variation remain relatively unknown. One potential mechanism by which environmental factors can influence phenotypic variation is epigenetics, defined as molecular-level mechanisms that affect gene expression without altering the underlying DNA sequence which may lead to heritable changes in phenotype. A large component of my research is focused on how epigenetic mechanisms (i.e. DNA methylation) contribute to individual variation in immune function and behavior. By investigating the environmental and mechanistic basis of individual variation in hosts' responses to pathogens, we can gain a better understanding of the traits that characterize key hosts (e.g. superspreaders, super-shedders) within a population.    

The zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) is an ideal organism for my dissertation research because their development, immunology and behavior are well-documented and they have a fully sequenced genome, which is conducive to studying how epigenetic mechanisms contribute to individual variation in immune function and behavior.