From Drawing to Morphology: Sandy Kawano

Sandy Kawano creates 3-D fossil models
For her research in the field of integrative morphology, Sandy Kawano creates 3-D fossil models such as this one, of amphibian Eryops, shown here at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. (Image credit: Sandy Kawano)

This ScienceLives article was provided to Live Science in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

A childhood love of drawing and an innate curiosity brought Sandy Kawano to the field of integrative morphology, a branch of biology dealing with the study of the form and structure of organisms and their specific features. She studies diversity in animal body shapes. As a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), Kawano investigates the different methods used to analyze how natural selection influences morphology. At NIMBioS, she aims to develop an open-source, user-friendly computer program that would provide a systematic approach for measuring how selection on morphology can contribute to evolution and generate biodiversity.

Name: Sandy Kawano Age: 29 Institution: National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis Hometown: San Jose, California Field of Study: Integrative morphology

National Science FoundationWhat is your field and why does it inspire you?

Sany Kawano: I am an integrative morphologist, so I employ a variety of techniques to understand how and why so many diverse body shapes have arisen in animals over time. Art played a major role in my love for morphology. When I was young, I would draw quite regularly and was intrigued by how diverse animals were. As I would draw my pet fishes, I wondered why I had to draw my goldfish with a short body and fan-shaped tail, but my algae sucker fish was long and slender. Why should they look so different when they both live in water? Why don’t organisms stick to one basic body shape? 

However, I didn’t decide to study morphology until I worked as an undergraduate in the lab of Professor Peter Wainwright at the University of California, Davis. He and his lab taught me about the field of functional morphology, which answered exactly the types of questions that have plagued me for my entire life. Integrative morphology inspires me because it provides a comprehensive approach to answering why the world is so diverse, what creates this diversity, and how the inspiration that we receive from nature can be applied to benefit our own lives. 

NSF: Please describe your current research.

S.K.: For my postdoctoral research at NIMBioS, I am evaluating the analyses used to quantify how natural selection operates to shape the morphology of organisms. Russell Lande and Stevan Arnold wrote a seminal paper in 1983 that provided a quantitative method to estimate how strong selection was operating to change a morphological trait and in what way, which has served an important role in understanding how natural selection can contribute to evolution and the generation of biodiversity. Lande and Arnold’s work in this area has inspired thousands of studies, including new approaches for quantifying selection, but we still face numerous challenges in understanding how selection operates, especially on larger sets of data. A number of these challenges are due to analytical limitations or disagreement over how to best handle these challenges. For my current work, I am developing a synthesis of the current status of estimating selection on morphology, with an emphasis on the strengths and weaknesses of the various methods used to quantify selection. Ultimately, my plan is to develop an open-source, user-friendly computer program that would provide a more systematic approach for measuring how selection on morphology can serve as a major driver of evolution. 

NSF: What do you like best about your work? 

S.K.: How dynamic my job is! When people hear that I am a morphologist, they often think: “So you work on bones and dead stuff?” Although a good portion of my work has involved taking direct measurements of anatomical structures (e.g., bones, muscles), those data are only one piece to solving the puzzle. I also implement statistics, mathematical modeling, high-speed videography, computer programming, engineering, and recently began developing 3-D models of fossil bones. My research has taken me to British Columbia, the island of Hawai’i, Spain, Uruguay and across the continental United States. A day in my life has included snorkeling to catch fish, driving boats to catch fish on near shore islands, visiting natural history museums across the United States, producing 3-D models of fossils with a laser scanner and then replicating them with a 3-D printer, generating computer code running several thousands of lines, sharing the fruits of my scientific labor with others through classroom lectures and conference presentations, and even serving as a scientific consultant for the entertainment industry. I also met Professor Neil Shubin, who wrote the book Your Inner Fish, which inspired my doctoral work. I’m living my wildest dreams with my career. 

NSF: What would your Tweet say about your work? What would your elevator speech say?

S.K.: Morphology is fun(ctional)! Actually, that’s already on my Twitter profile. Morphology is functional because not only can it tell us about what a structure is capable of and be applied to benefit various aspects of our lives, but it can also be a fun career! 

Morphology is not a “dead” subject as many have falsely presumed. It is as alive and diverse as the awe-inspiring creatures whose “beautiful forms” have caught our curiosity, inspired our lives, and left us breathless as far back as we can remember. Morphology can serve as an explanatory tool, helping us infer the biology of extinct animals whose clues lie hidden in their fossils. Yet, it also has many other important applications. The link between morphology and function has been so prevalent in nature and influential in our lives that it has led to bio-inspired inventions, such as hypodermic needles resembling the inconspicuous feeding tube of the mosquito, the Mercedes-Benz boxfish-inspired car providing a roomy yet streamlined vehicle, and airplane wings that get much of their energy-conserving design from aerodynamic bird wings. My research focuses on unraveling how different morphologies emerge and why, in order to understand the factors that drive the diversity of creatures, both living and extinct. I have studied how the morphological transformations from finned fishes to limbed tetrapods (four-legged animals) influenced the evolutionary invasion of land in vertebrate animals, how fishes use different body plans to climb waterfalls, and I am now attempting to improve the technique used to measure how morphological diversity is generated. 

NSF: Which professional accomplishment are you most proud of? / What stands out as your crowning achievement? 

S.K.: I am grateful to have more than one! First, when one of the undergraduate students in my vertebrate biology lab signed up to become an undergraduate teaching assistant a year after taking my lab, she said that the reason she was there was because I inspired her to pursue research and teach others about why we should love vertebrate biology. Whether she knew it or not, that was my proudest moment as an instructor. Yes, receiving awards, publishing papers, delivering presentations, etc., are all rewarding experiences, but motivating the next generation of scientists is whole new level of satisfaction. Second, joining the amazing team at NIMBioS, as a postdoctoral research associate, has been a major triumph in my career. I am honored to work amongst some of the most extraordinary mathematicians and scientists, and have hit a major milestone in acquiring the mathematical and computational skills to help launch my career and mold my research program. 

NSF: On the other hand, what has been your most discouraging professional moment and how did you recover? What did you learn?

S.K.: My most discouraging professional moment occurred as I was graduating high school. I had my heart set on obtaining a B.S. in evolution, ecology and biodiversity (EEB) at the University of California, Davis (UCD), because it has one of the best EEB programs in the nation. However, I didn’t have the best grades or application and so I was rejected. I was devastated. Rather than treating this as a failure, I took this as a wake-up call to face my weaknesses and prove that I could succeed as a biologist. I enrolled in a community college to complete my general education, studied more efficiently, actively participated in study groups and office hours, decreased my hours at my part-time job, immersed myself in literature, and participated in an honor society. After two years, I finally transferred to UCD. We all face discouraging moments in our lives, but what defines us is not what challenges we face but how we overcome them. I learned that even a big “failure” could become a triumph with enough diligence and perseverance, so every rejection is an opportunity to become a better and stronger scientist.

NSF: What is the best professional advice you ever received?

S.K.: Dr. Roi Holzman, who was a postdoctoral researcher in Professor Wainwright’s lab while I was an undergraduate student, offered me numerous pearls of wisdom and bestowed upon me the best advice I have received thus far: “Think big.” He urged me to focus on what big scientific question I would answer with my experiments, how my results would contribute to the advancement of science, and what broad implications this would have for society. His advice helps me to keep the big picture in mind and prepares me for when I talk to others about why my research is important. It’s because of Roi that I transformed my fascination in amphibious fishes to studying how the evolution from fishes to four-legged vertebrate animals allowed our distant ancestors to move onto land. “Thinking big” also encourages me to constantly look for ways to take a research project to new heights, such as by applying new techniques, approaching an old question from a novel perspective, integrating multiple disciplines for a more comprehensive analysis, and by re-evaluating paradigms in science. Roi’s advice motivates me to dig deeper, aim higher, and go further with every professional endeavor. 

NSF: What is the most surprising aspect of your work?

S.K.: Many people are alarmed at how computational and mathematical morphological studies can be. Although I have spent a fair share of my work out in the field or interacting directly with animals or bones, most of my work is conducted on computers. I own more computers and hard drives than purses. No joke. Mathematics is at the heart and soul of morphology. What do a nautilus shell, sunflowers, and DNA have in common? Their morphology can be explained by math, specifically the Fibonacci sequence. When you measure the length of a bone, that’s a Euclidean distance. Interested in knowing how fast that bone is moving while the animal is running? Calculus is your answer! Some of my friends are shocked when they see that my analyses are scripts with thousands of lines of computer code, or that I rarely use simple statistical approaches as I am trying to account for various aspects of the data in order to obtain a more comprehensive analysis about the patterns emerging. These are all good aspects, though, and coding is actually a lot of fun! 

NSF: What exciting developments lie in the future for your field? 

S.K.: Probably one of the most exciting advancements in the field of morphology (and anatomy) is the explosion of improved computational capabilities, allowing us to explore the relationship between morphology and function at new levels. Biomedical equipment, such as high-powered x-ray machines, allow us to study the fossil bones of animals that are still embedded in rock or the intricate network of soft tissues that surround a bone, for example. Animators and biomechanists use 3-D models of fossil bones and then apply details about the morphology of living animals to bring fossils, such as dinosaurs, to life. The application of increasingly more sophisticated technology with greater knowledge about anatomy and morphology will further improve our models of how different parts of an animal contribute to its overall biology and why those morphological traits persisted or diversified over time. 

NSF: Who is your #1 hero and why?

S.K.: Although I have heroes for different aspects of my life, one of my biggest heroes is my undergraduate adviser, Professor Peter Wainwright. Peter introduced me to the functional morphology and feeding biomechanics of fishes, and I’ve been hooked ever since. In addition to making many important contributions to our understanding about the relationship between morphology and function, such as many-to-one mapping, and spearheading the field of fish-feeding biomechanics, I know of no one else who is willing to go so far above and beyond the call of duty to assist students with attaining their career goals. He reached out to me while I was an undergraduate student and took me under his wing so that I could lead my first independent research project. I will always be grateful to him for giving me a chance at research and helping me live up to my potential. Over the years he has given me valuable words of advice and kind words of encouragement, demonstrated how to foster community within the lab, and actively assisted my professional development. His immense enthusiasm, devotion and appreciation for science and teaching are inspiring and are what encouraged me to pursue a career as an integrative morphologist. 

NSF: What do you do when you’re not in the lab or out in the field? 

S.K.: When I get the spare chance, I love to be outdoors and particularly enjoy fishing, hiking and trail running. I have also recently taken up photography and scuba diving. Nature is a constant source of inspiration for me, and I use the patterns that I see in nature to fuel my curiosity in understanding why there are so many different organisms, why they live where they do, why they move and eat they way they do. Even after spending all day reading scientific articles, I still enjoy reading outside of work. I’m a big fan of books by biomechanist Steve Vogel and also enjoy reading about conservation biology and the philosophy of science. One of my favorite books is A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold; I love his ability to write with such eloquence and conviction about maintaining biodiversity by promoting scientific ethics, and I refer back to his book any time I need a pick-me-up. I also love watching bad monster movies, especially if it has “mecha,” “super,” “mega” or “versus” in the title. What can I say, I’m happy being a nerd! 

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in ScienceLives articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.