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From Peace and Conflict to Salamanders and Snakes — Sima tells all.

Could the MVZ change your career goals?

Herpetology Curatorial Assistant Sima Bouzid will soon be off on a new adventure. Recipient of a National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship, Sima is starting graduate school this fall (2014) at the University of Washington. We wish her the best in her new position, and are confident she will go far as an emerging ecological and evolutionary biologist.

In this piece, Sima relays her journey as an MVZ undergraduate student, details her plans for the future, and offers sound advice to prospective or current MVZ undergrads aspiring to pursue a career in the biological sciences.

Pituophis catenifer
Sima Bouzid holds the first jar she ever ethanoled in the MVZ Herp Collection - a Pituophis catenifer, or Pacific gopher snake. Photo by Katharine Corriveau, 2014

MVZ curatorial assistant Sima Bouzid did not always know she wanted to study biology. In fact, she started her undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley enrolled in Peace & Conflict studies, analyzing past wars in an effort to better understand human nature and the human condition.

It was the ants that changed everything.

While searching for a summer job that first fateful spring of college, Sima stumbled upon an advertisement for a field assistant, posted by an Environmental Science, Policy, & Management graduate student. Knowing that she loved to spend time outdoors, she took a chance and applied.

Sure enough, that graduate student knew Sima was the right fit. She spent the summer of 2010 traipsing the Tahoe forests searching for slavemaker ants (Polyergus breviceps) and their two host ant species Formica fusca and Formica argentea.

(Now I'm sure you're all wondering what these "slavemakers" are -- let me assure you that you won't be let down. They are just as formidable as they sound. This webpage published by North Carolina State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences gives a good overview of the life history of these fascinating animals).

Polyergus breviceps (the "slavemaker") Photo by Michael Branstetter © on Wikipedia Commons
Formica fusca (host species) Photo by Jen Fogarty © on Wikipedia Commons
Formica argentea (host species) Photo by April Nobile © on Wikipedia Commons

Seeking out ant colonies awoke in Sima a sleeping curiosity. The thrill of the hunt and the chance to act as observer to the fascinating slavemaker ant life history saga was enough to get her hooked on biology. What could be better than spending your working days, (and even "off-days", as she would soon find out), elucidating the mysteries of the natural world?

Needless to say, once her summer contract came to an end, Sima aggressively pursued other science-related jobs to explore the breadth of opportunities available to her in this field.

Her job search quickly paid off, and in the fall of 2011, Sima was hired on at the MVZ to work in the prep lab, the basement laboratory where specimens are 'transformed' into a state deemed worthy for long-term storage in a museum. Soon after, she became a curatorial assistant in the herpetology collection under staff curator Carol Spencer, a position she has now held (and thrived in) for the last 4 years.

Sima remembers her initiation to the MVZ as a critical moment in her life. In the moments that followed, she would solidify her passion for science and biology and choose a new career path that promises adventure and discovery.

The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology 'prep lab', where Sima started her MVZ journey.Photo by Theresa Barclay

During her time at the MVZ, Sima has been much more than an employee. She wrote her undergraduate thesis under the supervision of MVZ Emeritus Director David Wake, focusing her research on Mayamandra, a subgenus of Bolitoglossa, the largest genus of neotropical salamanders (Family Plethodontidae) in the world.

Bolitoglossa hartwegi, a neotropical salamander in the subgenus Mayamandra.Photo by Todd Pierson on Flickr

For this project, Sima analyzed the morphological characteristics and mitochondrial and nuclear DNA of museum specimens in the Mayamandra subgenus from across their known geographic range. Her ultimate goal was to reveal the evolutionary relationships between the species forming this subgenus. She hopes to submit this research for publication in a month or so — so stay tuned!

Crotalus scutulatus specimen from the MVZ collections.Photo by Katharine Corriveau

On top of carrying out her own undergraduate research project, Sima has been heavily involved in a project led by Carol Spencer involving Crotalus scutulatus, the Mojave rattlesnake.

You don't want to mess with this species.

Described vividly by Sima, "the Mojave rattlesnake is considered to be one of the most dangerous rattlesnakes because of its aggressive temperament, high venom yield, and higher proportion of neurotoxic to hemotoxic components in the venom". As suggested by their prefixes, neurotoxic venom affects the nervous system, leading to anything from seizures to death; whereas hemotoxic venom attacks the blood and organs, destroying red blood cells and causing tissue damage, among other effects. Herpetologists maintain that the intraspecific variation in the relative proportions of these two toxic components in a snake's venom may result from differences in diet (i.e., consuming primarily reptiles versus consuming primarily mammals) among other factors that vary geographically.

Sima (right) and Evolutionary Genetics Lab Manager Lydia Smith (left) collect C. scutulatus snake venom in San Luis Potosí in 2013 Photo courtesy of Sima Bouzid

Carol's project involves studying the variation in ecology, morphology, and venom composition of the Mojave rattlesnake across its geographic range in the western US and Mexico. Since the variability in venom composition hasn't yet been studied in this species, the treatment of Mojave rattlesnake bites in humans is challenging. Carol and Sima hope that their research will facilitate the treatment of Mojave rattlesnake envenomations by quantifying the relative proportion of neuro- and hemotoxic components in the species' venom in different parts of its range.

So far, Sima has spent two summers collecting snakes and venom in the field. When she started at the MVZ back in 2010, she was deathly afraid of snakes and could not walk through the museum's herpetology collection without a shiver running down her spine. Let's just say this is no longer a problem for her -- the MVZ is a great place to overcome your animal-related fears!

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in Integrative Biology from UC Berkeley in 2013, Sima stayed on at the MVZ to continue working in the herpetology collections. Just this April 2014, she found out the big news:

She was the lucky (and well-deserving) recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship!

Being awarded this fellowship is a huge achievement, providing graduate students with a living stipend and full tuition payments for 3 years of a PhD program.

Graduate school it is then, Sima's fate is sealed.

While selecting a school proved difficult, in the end Sima chose to attend the University of Washington, and will be starting there in the Fall of 2014. She will be co-advised by Lauren Buckley (functional ecology, evolution, and biogeography in changing environments) and former MVZ-er Adam Leaché (evolutionary biology of reptiles and amphibians), and hopes to develop a project that combines experimental lab work with molecular techniques to better understand environmental adaptation in lizards.

Now that she will soon be starting a new chapter in her life, Sima was asked what she will miss most about working at the MVZ:

"What I loved most about the MVZ was the community of brilliant scientists and great people that I got to see everyday. That's also what I'll miss most about working here. Though everyone keeps telling me that no one ever really leaves the MVZ, so I hope I'll be back!"

We hope you'll be back too!

Sima leaves us with some sound advice for undergraduate students looking to be successful working at a research museum like the MVZ:

"Get into the habit of double checking and making notes of everything you do. It's so much easier to make quick fixes along the way than to try and figure out everything you did at the end. Plus, with big curatorial projects you might not be able to finish, keeping notes allows someone else to dive right in and not have to spend time getting up to speed".

Turns out, taking notes is a critical skill for a budding museum scientist, so if that's you, buckle up and start writing! But also make sure you know what your favorite specimen in your collection is (and there can be more than one, of course).

For Sima, this would be the Siren lacertina (Greater Siren) and the Conraua goliath (Goliath Frog), primarily because they are both large specimens held in tanks (which is always exciting), and also because they were animals she had read about prior to working at the MVZ, but never thought she would actually see in person.

The Greater Siren (Siren lacertina). Photo courtesy of Eugene van der Pijll on Wikipedia Commons
A preserved Goliath Frog (Conraua goliath) at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Photo by istolethetv on Flickr

—Written by Katharine Corriveau

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