Expert on Skin Color and Evolution Zooms with Advanced Biology Class

"So, we know that skin color has evolutionary advantages, but do hair and eye color also have similar evolutionary benefits?" asked Claudia Cortell '21 from her on-screen Zoom box.

Claudia's curiosity was sparked during a recent online visit by Dr. Ellen Quillen of Wake Forest University to Science teacher Leah Cataldo's Advanced Biology class. In preparation for their class with Dr. Quillen, the seniors, studying evolution and population genetics, read several papers and watched a TED Talk explaining that variation in skin color is an evolutionary adaptation to ultraviolet light exposure in different latitudes (see the TED Talk by Nina Jablonski here). 

On the forefront of this field as it relates to skin cancer and other areas of research, Quillen spoke about skin tone as a complex genetically inherited trait controlled by many genes, as well as her own educational path and interests. 

"I think it's important to have opportunities for students to see how what they are learning in their textbook relates to science beyond the classroom," said Cataldo. "Outside speakers gracious enough to share their time and expertise help students to see the relevance and real world applications of their learning."

Alex Wu '21 thought Quillen's research on the evolution of skin color "was a cool way to learn about evolution in a more relatable way," he said. "She also taught us about how she became a researcher, which was really interesting to me because I want to go into research in the future."

Claudia shared Alex's appreciation for Quillen's contribution to their studies. "It reminded me that although we see lots of examples of evolution in other organisms, we too are products of evolution," she said. "Just like any other life on earth, our bodies are adapted to the world around us and continue to evolve. I really enjoyed the presentation overall."

"No matter the subject," said Catherine Bertolini '21, "I enjoy listening to someone who's clearly incredibly passionate about their work. It makes the topic more digestible."