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New Face: Elizabeth Stacy

Excited about UNLV’s diversity and upward trajectory, this new life sciences professor is looking forward to involving more undergraduates in her research.

People  |  Oct 9, 2017  |  By Shane Bevell
Portrait of Elizabeth Stacy.

Elizabeth Stacy, Associate Professor (Josh Hawkins/UNLV creative services)

As a child, Elizabeth Stacy loved investigating the woods behind her farmhouse in Massachusetts and watching nature specials on PBS, which fostered her love of biology. As a graduate student, she went on daring trips to tropical locations that were often in civil unrest, all in the name of research. Stacy comes to UNLV after 12 years at the University of Hawaii Hilo. She completed her postdoctoral work at Concordia University (Montreal) and her Ph.D. at Boston University.

Growing up

I grew up in an old farmhouse in Massachusetts, an hour west of Boston, and spent summer vacations camping on the coast of Maine. I had a goat, ducks, and rabbits, and developed some pretty good painting and spackling skills, because old houses are always in need of repair it seems.

Why UNLV?

Its diversity and upward trajectory. I think ultra-diverse universities like UNLV pave the way for understanding across ethnicities and cultures, something that is sorely needed in this country. And the drive toward Top Tier status under the new leadership is very attractive to me.

What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you have worked?

Its size and energy. I’m getting used to the larger classes, and I love the super-sized energy that comes with them. I’m thrilled to be interacting with more students every year and look forward to engaging more undergraduates in my research program.  

What inspired you to get into your field?

I’ve always loved nature, and as a kid I spent a lot of time investigating the woods behind our house and watching nature specials on PBS. Biology was my favorite subject in high school and easily my first choice for a major at college. I guess I have an explorer in me too, because early on I got hooked on the idea of exploring the biology of poorly known parts of the world — namely tropical rainforests or deep oceans.

Your research

I am an evolutionary/tropical biologist, studying how speciation works in trees, primarily.  I am fascinated by the origin of Earth’s enormous diversity of tree species (~100,000 species), most which are in the tropics. Trees form the backbone of many terrestrial communities, and yet little is known about how they came to be. My work centers on a Hawaiian tree species complex that captures many stages of divergence, from hybridizing varieties of the same species to strongly isolated species. My lab uses this group as a model for understanding how differential local adaptation across heterogeneous environments leads to morphological divergence and the evolution of reproductive isolating barriers (or the inability for diverged populations to make viable, fertile offspring with each other). At that point, speciation has occurred.

What do you find most interesting about your field?

I thrive on new data from any of my lab’s projects, but I guess I am most excited about the prospects of untangling the molecular basis of local adaptation and reproductive isolation. We are venturing into the world of genomics, and the interface of genomic studies and our field- and greenhouse-based studies promises to yield important insights into divergence and speciation.

Tell us about a time in your life when you have been daring.

As a graduate student working on tropical trees, I took advantage of every opportunity I came across to visit or work in tropical countries. I didn’t speak the language of any of these places at the start, and in some places, there were terrorist groups or civil unrest (Peru, Sri Lanka). Looking back, I can see why my mother was worried! But if I had to do it all over again, I would.

Tell us about an object in your office that is significant to you.

I have a couple of empty Brazil nut pods on my window sill, complete with holes chewed by agoutis (for seed removal). They are souvenirs from my first real tropical forest excursion — to the Peruvian Amazon in 1990. That fall, I had volunteered on a study of Brazil nut tree ecology to determine through real field experience if I wanted to pursue tropical forest studies. I was hooked immediately on the immense diversity of tree species in the Amazon and have been working to understand the origin of the world’s estimated 100,000 tree species ever since

Outside work

Talk about evolution ;-), sing badly, and try to keep in shape!