Research interests: 

My research focuses on the evolution and diversification of venoms, complex cocktails of toxins injected by specialized delivery systems for the purpose of predation, defense, competition, digestion, and numerous other nuanced ecological functions. Changes in venom composition (and therefore function) can occur over the development of venomous animals, typically in response to changes in their ecological interactions, e.g. dietary shift, different predation pressures. The relationship between venom composition and ecological interactions is not well studied in many venomous lineages, but this work is especially lacking for invertebrates. Furthermore, the mechanistic and evolutionary pathways that result in the emergence of novel toxins or toxin families, including neo- or subfunctionalization of toxin genes, or processes than lend to the specialization of toxins to specific ecological roles are also poorly understood. My research aims to understand how venom composition, function, and delivery systems are influenced  by selection in response to specific ecological interactions, and how these relationships change over evolutionary time. 

Specifically, I am interested in the phylum Cnidaria, which includes jellyfish and their relatives. Cnidarians are the earliest diverging venomous animals, yet, relative to other venomous lineages, they are some of the most poorly explored in terms of their venom composition, function, and evolutionary relationships. Cnidarians display an astonishing diversity of developmental and complex life history characteristics, as well as play important ecological roles across all major marine and some freshwater habitats. I argue that cnidarians are a compelling model for understanding how venom structure and function evolve for specialized ecological roles and across complex life histories, especially given their potential as model laboratory systems. I am particularly interested in how venoms vary between functionally distinct tissues, such as across colonies that display a division of labor, and across different life stages, including the change from a benthic polyp to a pelagic medusa. Furthermore, I am interested in the potential for different stinging cell types to utilize different venom repertoires, and am currently exploring how stinging cells, specifically different types of stinging cells, are regulated and assembled.

Figure 7 - Holstein 1981  (10.1016/s0022-5320(81)80085-8)

Current Position:

I am currently a NSF Postdoctoral Researcher in Biology Fellow at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in the Gibson Lab.

Given my previous work on cnidarian venoms, I am deeply interested in the complex structures cnidarians use to synthesize and deliver these toxins - stinging cells. These cells produce highly intricate intracellualr structures called cnidae, of which the most common category is the venom-deploying nematocyst. I am interested in the molecular dynamics involved in the assembly of these highly complex structures, and how variation can be introduced during this assembly, resulting in the ~30 nematocyst types we currently observe in extant cnidarian species. 

I am using the variety of molecular resources available within the model sea anemone Nematostella vectensis as well as establishing new tools (e.g scRNA and proteomic databases, transgenic lines) to model the mechanisms involved in the assembly of this highly complex structure.

Please visit my profile on the Gibson lab webpage here:

  • PC for Nematostella vectensis image


I completed my PhD as a Chancellor's Fellow at the University of Kansas, advised by Dr. Paulyn Cartwright. My thesis focused on the evolutionary patterns of and ecological influences on the venoms of medusozoans, which includes hydrozoans (hydroids and hydromedusae), scyphozoans (true jellyfish), cubozoans (box jellyfish), and staurozoans (stalked jellyfish). 

I used various "omic's" techniques, including genomics and transcriptomics, to understand venom evolution and expression patterns across different tissues and life stages, primarily using the rising model Hydractinia symbiolongicarpus. I also used a variety of molecular biology and microinjection-based techniques to study the localization and in-vivo function of specific venom components, primarily pore-forming toxins. I further investigated the relationship between venom composition and specific types of stinging cells, the complex venom-delivering structures found only in cnidarians.