Staff Profile

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Erica Zahnle

DNA Educator and Researcher

Integrative Research Center
Evolutionary Biology


I joined the Museum's Exhibitions Department in 2004 to market and travel Field Museum produced science exhibitions worldwide.  The exhibits developed by this institution are incredibly informative and engaging, so much so that one in particular, Gregor Mendel: Planting The Seed Of Genetics, inspired me to go back to school to be on the other side of the exhibit as the scientist.  After taking all the undergraduate courses in biology and chemistry necessary to pursue a masters degree in biology, I was hired as a research assistant in the Pritzker Lab.  In addition, I work as the lead educator for the Rice DNA Discovery Center–a permanent exhibition that helps Museum visitors explore the science behind DNA.  

As a researcher I work on a variety of projects and interact with some of the brightest scientists in the world. I have looked at the genetic diversity of Madagascan cavefish, plumed African birds, and microscopic pathogens.  Right now I am part of The Emerging Pathogens Project, generating sequences for DNA barcoding in bird species.  This entails amplifying the Cytochrome b (Cyt b) gene on the mitochondrial DNA of different taxa of birds.  These barcodes will be useful in identifying correlations of infection between avian hosts and some of their protozoan parasites, Plasmodium and Haemoproteus, which are responsible for avian malaria and are detectable through PCR techniques.

On weekdays I host "Talk to the Scientist Hour" in the DNA Discovery Center, a Q&A session that educates the public about the ongoing research in the Pritzker Lab.  However, the most rewarding part of my job is running the DNA Residency, a program bringing four high school students and two high school biology teachers into the Pritzker Lab for a six-week summer course.  They are trained in genetic techniques, including DNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and DNA sequencing.  Working with teenagers is exhilarating, mentally stimulating, and fun.  I love hearing from them as they are accepted into some of the best universities in the world.

For more information about my job, or the ongoing research and people in the Pritzker Lab, become a fan and check out the notes section of our facebook page-The DNA Discovery Center and Pritzker Lab at the Field Museum.

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