Meet DEB: Simon Malcomber, SBS Program Officer


Basic Profile

NSF Division of Environmental Biology Program Officer Simon Malcomber photographing the Western Australia pitcher plant in Western Australia.

NSF Division of Environmental Biology Program Officer Simon Malcomber photographing the Western Australia pitcher plant in Western Australia.

Name: Simon Malcomber

Education: I received a First class (honors) undergraduate degree in Botany (with Zoology) from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, and a doctorate in Evolutionary and Population Biology from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri with Dr. Peter Raven as my advisor.

Home Institution: California State University, Long Beach

NSF Experience/History:  I’ve served as a rotator in the Systematics and Biodiversity Science (SBS) cluster since the end of August 2012, so about seven months. Prior to that I served as a panelist and reviewer for SBS and a reviewer for Genes and Genome Systems in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, and Developmental Mechanisms in the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems.

Research Experience/History: After getting my undergraduate degree in 1990 I was employed for a year as a Scientific Officer in the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew working on a new classification for the asparagus family (Asparagaceae) and then on some treatments for the Flora of Brunei. After that I took a job as Plant Collector and Resident Botanist in Madagascar for the Missouri Botanical Garden where I lived and worked for the best part of three years conducting botanical inventories of four protected areas (Montagne d’Ambre, Manongarivo, Ranomafana and Andohahela). In 1994 I came to the US for my doctoral research and studied the systematics and evolution of Gaertnera, a genus in the coffee family (Rubiaceae). This work included fieldwork in Brunei, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore and Sri Lanka, a systematic revision of 68 species and a natural hybrid, and molecular phylogenetic research.  In 2000 I started my post-doc research on the evolutionary developmental genetics (evo-devo) of grasses and immediate relatives in Toby Kellogg’s lab at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.  This research focused on the evolution of developmental gene families that have been linked with the origin and diversification of the grass spikelet.  In 2006 I joined the faculty at California State University Long Beach where I continued to study systematics questions using evo-devo approaches including studies on the evolution of the grass spikelet, the origin of the corona in passionflowers, the genetic regulation of axillary growth, and the gene families regulating the biosynthesis and transport of the phytohormone, auxin.

Competitions I currently work on: All of the programs in SBS — Phylogenetic Systematics, Biodiversity: Discovery and Analysis, and the Tree of Life — and also the Dimensions of Biodiversity.

Q&A

What are your current study system(s) and area(s) of expertise?

I still work on grasses and immediate relatives (Poales) and the coffee family (Rubiaceae), but many of my research projects now use representative species from across the land plant clade to understand when particular developmental gene families evolved and how they have diversified to help shape plant morphological form.   So, I’m much more of a generalist now and like to find particular taxa to address interesting questions (such as the origin of the corona in passionflowers).

Biggest surprise you’ve encountered coming to DEB from the academic world:

Just how much there is to learn, and how much there is to balance, before starting to feel that you are doing your job effectively.  That, and how much quality time you can spend with large spreadsheet files!

Tell your awesome fieldwork adventure story:

I don’t know if this is awesome, but there are certain areas of the rainforest in Madagascar that have a lot of leeches.  A group of us went to one of these places in the SE Madagascar during a particularly rainy period and the leeches were everywhere.  My wife was looking for lemurs in the trees but unbeknownst to her a leech had made it onto the eyecup of her binoculars.  Before she knew it the leech had made it onto her face and then started crawling first around her eye and then around the back of her eyeball.  This is probably stating the obvious, but we didn’t want the leech to attach to her eyeball so three people held her head steady, and one of the guides with VERY steady hands used a pair of Swiss Army knife tweezers to remove the leech.  I developed a new appreciation for Swiss Army knife tweezers that day!

What would someone find you doing in your down time?

Hiking in the woods, listening to music or watching English football (soccer), cooking up a storm on the grill or smoker, trying new cocktail recipes, or sampling local DC restaurants. Back in California you might find me riding fire roads on a large motorcycle.

What else should readers know about you?

After living in the US for 18 years I finally became a citizen last year.  The ceremony was an intimate affair back in Los Angeles with just me, the judge, my wife and 3341 other new citizens. Even the naturalization ceremonies are big in America.

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