ESEB and the Journal of Evolutionary Biology (JEB) award an annual prize for the best graduate paper published in the journal in that calendar year. The award is named after Stephen Stearns, who played a major role in establishing both JEB and ESEB (article).
The Stearns Graduate Student Prize is aimed at recognising outstanding graduate (Masters or PhD) research. While previously awarded to a single winner, from 2022 onwards the JEB editorial board selects up to three joint awardees. This change recognises the fact that research excellence comes in many facets, ranging from the innovative nature of the questions addressed, over the technical challenges in performing the research to the scientific and societal impact of the results.
The award includes an invitation to attend the ESEB Congress (registration fee covered), where awardees will present their work in a dedicated Stearns Prize symposium.
The Stearns Prize recognises the outstanding contribution of graduate students to research published in JEB. Graduate students are eligible for the prize if they led both the research described in the article and the writing of the manuscript itself (and supervisors will be asked to confirm this before awards are made). Reflecting their role, we would then also usually expect the student to be the lead (first) author. We expect papers to be submitted within two years of completing the project.
During the process of submitting a manuscript to JEB, the corresponding author will be asked “Was this study led by a graduate student?”. If the corresponding author answers “Yes” and identifies the student among the authors, the manuscript is automatically considered for the Stearns Prize in the year of its publication. Self-nomination is also encouraged, where the graduate student leading the study is also the submitting and corresponding author.
For each calendar year, all papers published in JEB that were nominated at the point of submission as above are automatically longlisted for the Stearns Prize. Editors will be asked to nominate papers they handled for shortlisting based on the following criteria:
- paper addresses an innovative research question or approaches the question in an innovative way
- contains technically challenging work
- displays a particularly robust approach to answering the research question
Shortlisted papers are then ranked using the same criteria as above by a panel of editorial board members who did NOT handle the papers, to minimise bias towards a particular field. The top papers (up to 3 winners) will be awarded the Stearns Prize for that calendar year. The full shortlist will be made available online for prize year 2022 onwards.
This paper was inspired by a desire to understand the selective pressures driving colour pattern divergence among closely related, sympatric species and I am honoured that it has been recognized with a Stearns Prize. This project was conducted as part of my PhD research at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada in collaboration with my PhD advisor Paul R. Martin.
To study behavioural responses to colour pattern differences between species, independent of size or shape differences, I painted 3D printed models to exactly match the spectrometer-measured colours of individual male museum specimens of three bird species: black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and their equally closely related congeners, mountain chickadees (P. gambeli) and Mexican chickadees (P. sclateri). Black-capped chickadees co-occur with the more differently coloured mountain chickadee in parts of their range, but never live with the more similarly coloured Mexican chickadee. To test the hypothesis that these colour pattern differences are driven by selection against hybridization, we presented pairs of these models to naïve black-capped chickadee females and observed which models they were most likely to direct copulation solicitation displays towards. We found that females were less interested in mating with more divergently coloured models under certain conditions, suggesting that colour pattern divergence may indeed reduce mixed mating, and should therefore be favoured by selection against hybridization. This experiment was extremely challenging, but incredibly rewarding, and I am excited about what else we can learn about signal evolution and species coexistence through this type of tightly controlled field experiment in the future.
I majored in zoology during my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Presidency University, Kolkata, India, with a specialization in ecology. Then I moved to Switzerland to pursue my PhD in evolutionary biology in the lab of Prof. Rolf Kümmerli at the University of Zurich studying phenotypic heterogeneity in bacterial populations. Thereafter, I pursued postdoctoral research studying prey-predator interactions in microbes. Recently I have moved to the University of Pennsylvania, USA for a postdoc in the field of immune-microbiome interactions. I am broadly interested in field of microbial ecology and evolution, with the intention to bridge fundamental and translational research.
In this research conducted during my PhD, we investigated whether division of labour evolve with respect to public goods in the opportunistic pathogenic social bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa. We observed that specialists did not indulge in cooperative division of labour but rather could co-exist via mutual cheating. Contrary to popular observations in other study systems, our results suggest that there is a narrow range of conditions under which division of labour can evolve.
(X handle: @SubhamMridha)
This study was conducted as part of my PhD research at the University of Salford and the Zoological Society of London. Under the guidance of my supervisors Robert Jehle and Trent Garner, alongside colleagues at the Institute of Zoology and the Highland Amphibian and Reptile Project, I set out to explore the relationship between host genetic diversity and capacity to defend against novel pathogens. Here, the host was the common toad, and the pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), a fungus that has caused catastrophic declines and extinctions across hundreds of amphibian species, making it the most destructive pathogen of vertebrates ever characterised. It is not, however, universally destructive, and some host individuals and populations fare better than others. To better understand this, we focused on toad populations situated on the north-western edge of the species range on and around the isle of Skye in Scotland.
Combining controlled infection experiments with genetic analyses, we showed considerable genetic divergence between toad populations and a strong influence of population identity on response to this novel pathogen. But this response did not seem to be driven by genetic erosion on comparatively isolated islands. Indeed, heterozygosity showed an unexpected negative relationship with survival. Our findings underscore the importance of context dependency in complex host-pathogen dynamics, and caution against simplistic assumptions about the vulnerability of genetically depauperate host populations.
These days, I still focus on islands, but in a different way. I work with Monash University researching and restoring the ecology of Browse Island in the Timor Sea, helping a degraded island once teeming with seabirds to flourish again.