Dr. Robert R. Fitak, Assistant Professor
I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Central Florida and also hold an appointment as a core member of the Genomics and Bioinformatics Cluster. I completed my BS in molecular genetics at The Ohio State University and PhD in the Genetics Interdisciplinary Program at the University of Arizona in the laboratory of Dr. Melanie Culver. My early research involved the development of SNP markers to monitor puma populations in the southwestern USA and a conservation genomic analysis of the endangered Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi). I have also performed a variety of conservation genetic and genomic projects in many other protected species including Anodontid mussels, Mt. Graham red squirrels, Old World camels, Florida panthers, etc. Recently, I have focused on applying genomic techniques to studies of unique sensory physiology, such as magnetoreception and dermal photoreception. I also am very interested in studying wildlife diseases, such as the emerging "Snake Fungus" (Ophidiomyces) pathogen, and teach bioinformatics at the Genomics of Disease in Wildlife Workshop every June at Colorado State University. In my spare time, I do a lot of running, hiking, herping, furniture making, in addition to playing lots of soccer.
Dr. Alexander Ochoa, Postdoc
Alex obtained his B.S. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where he studied the genetic effects of recent habitat fragmentation on the endangered Perote ground squirrel (Xerospermophilus perotensis). He then obtained a PhD in Natural Resources (with emphasis in Wildlife Management and Conservation) from the University of Arizona, where he focused on topics related to population genomics/genetics of endangered wildlife, particularly of Florida panthers (Puma concolor coryi), jaguars (Panthera onca), and Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx). After completing his PhD, Alex concluded a three-year postdoctoral appointment at the Ohio State University, where he studied genomics and venom gene evolution of the threatened Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus). As a postdoctoral scholar in the Fitak Lab, Alex will continue research with population genomics questions associated with wildlife management and conservation. In his spare time, Alex enjoys watching movies, camping, and playing soccer.
Taryn Gustafson, Graduate Student (PhD)
An avid tide pooler and scuba diver from Seattle, Taryn grew up fascinated by the behavior of marine animals. She is particularly fond of the remarkably intelligent giant Pacific octopus. Taryn decided to attend graduate school to investigate the molecular basis of cognition in octopuses and other cephalopods. Her research interests stem from a lifelong curiosity about animal behavior and a passion for comparative neuroscience. Taryn graduated from Western Washington University with a B.S. in Behavioral Neuroscience. In the Rose Learning and Memory Lab, Taryn studied associative learning and oxidative stress in the model C. elegans. Following graduate school, she plans to pursue post-doctoral training and to eventually become a faculty researcher in comparative neurobiology. In the meantime, Taryn may be found exploring Florida’s scuba diving sites during her study breaks.
George Zaragoza, Graduate Student (PhD)
George earned his B.S. from the University of California - Davis, where he worked as a technician in several labs studying topics including the ovipositor morphology of invasive spotted wing Drosophila (Drosophia suzukii), tritrophic interactions in plant defense systems of sticky tarweed (Madia elegans), and habitat use by western pond turtles (Actinemys marmorata), also assisting with capture surveys of California invasive northern water snakes (Nerodia sipedon). After graduating from UC Davis, George worked in Bayer’s biological agricultural research and development group for 5 years as a member of their entomology team, working closely with scientists from several fields including data science and bioinformatics.
George returned to school to develop as a conservation scientist. He is broadly interested in studying how changing environments affect organisms at a genomic level and how this may influence phenotypic and behavioral traits and biodiversity.
Liz Boggs, Undergraduate Student Researcher
Liz is a senior Biology undergraduate with a background in marine animal husbandry and coastal ecology research. Her current research interests involve the magnetic sensory abilities of marine animals with a focus on applying the knowledge gained to improving conservation methods of threatened marine species.
Arimar J. López Limas, Undergraduate Student Researcher
Arimar is a senior Biology undergraduate in the Pre-Vet/Zoology track at UCF. She transferred from the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico-Ponce Campus (PUCPR) in Spring 2018 after being displaced by Hurricane María. As an undergraduate at PUCPR, Arimar worked as a General Chemistry I peer mentor, and as a clerical assistant in the Encarnación-Valdés Library. She also interned at a private veterinary clinic in Ponce. Since Spring 2018, Arimar has been volunteering as an usher at the Iglesia Victoria en La Cruz, where she congregates regularly. She joined the Fitak Lab and the Honors Undergraduate Thesis Program at UCF in the Spring 2020 semester. Currently, her research project aims to characterize the visual system of lone star ticks using transcriptomics. In other words, do male lone star ticks have the machinery to see the characteristic yellow spot on females? After graduating from UCF, Arimar wants to pursue a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine and eventually specialize in canine/feline practice.
You can learn more about Arimar and her experiences as an undergraduate Here.
Annabelle Levin, Undergraduate Student Researcher
Annabelle is a sophomore studying Biology with a minor in music. She is interested in learning more about how magnoreception works in animals by investigating the distribution of a particular insertion/deletion in the CACNA1D protein across animals. This inserion/deletion has been previously linked to a magnetic sense in pigeons. Annabelle plans on attending graduate school in the future to study infectious diseases.
Jessica Scales, Undergraduate Student Researcher
Jessica is a senior biology undergraduate minoring in environmental studies. She is especially interested in using drone mapping to aid environmental ecological and genomics studies in increasing the protection of coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems. She also works with Dr. Timothy Hawthorne in sociology as a team member of Citizen Science GIS, which aims to make science more accessible and understandable between communities and scientists. Her current research involves looking at the infectious diseases that impact the American alligator using currently existing genomic data.
Coral Robson, Undergraduate Student Researcher
Coral was a Biology undergraduate with a minor in chemistry. Her interests are in wildlife disease and medicine, specifically in relation to species native to Florida. Her current research involves investigating infectious diseases affecting burrowing owl populations through the de novo discovery of pathogens from existing genomic data. Her goal is to use this information to help develop improved conservation management of the burrowing owl populations. When she has time, she paints animals and scenery using watercolors.
Anthony Hevia, Undergraduate Student Researcher
Anthony was a Computer Science undergraduate with a background in artificial intelligence, software development, and machine learning. His current research interests involve utilizing recent advancements in AI and Machine Learning to better understand wildlife and how to protect them. Anthony currently works for Microsoft.
Equality and inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds are fundamental to scientific inquiry. Similar to how major scientific steps forward have been made through the integration of multiple disciplines, the integration and collaboration of diverse people has generated new ideas, techniques, and paradigms critical for scientific advancement. Not only are we committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive atmosphere, whether it be gender, race, disability, sexual preference, etc., but recognize that it is essential to the scientific and personal development of all of us. For more information regarding what the Fitak Lab has been doing to promote diversity in our group, the UCF Biology Department, and in STEM, visit the Resources page.