Alumni Spotlight: Nora Brown, Ph.D. ’23

Nora Brown

February 12, 2024

Nora Brown, Ph.D. ’23, is an alumna of the genetics, genomics, and development doctoral program at Cornell, during which she was co-advised by Mariana Wolfner and Andrew Clark. She is now a postdoc at MIT.

What was your research focus at Cornell?

My thesis work was focused on understanding the function and evolution of a major class of male reproductive proteins called seminal fluid proteins, which are important for fertility in many species (including humans). Using fruit flies as a model organism, I uncovered a novel role in reproduction for a set of seminal proteins (called odorant binding proteins) that normally function in the fly’s ability to smell and taste, but in the seminal fluid they act to form a “mating plug” that helps store sperm after mating. I also used a comparative genomics approach to show how these proteins can change rapidly over evolutionary time.

What is the broader implication of this research and how is it making an impact?

Seminal fluid proteins are quite different across distantly related species (they are similar to immune genes that evolve rapidly), but they often show similarities at the functional level. Odorant binding proteins are very often found in the seminal fluid in insects, and my research lays the groundwork for testing whether the mating plug function is shared or unique to particular species. More broadly speaking, understanding the functions of insect reproductive proteins can lead to better approaches for controlling human disease vectors like mosquitos and can even provide insight into human infertility. 

Tell us about your current position and what you find rewarding about it.

I am currently a postdoctoral associate in Yukiko Yamashita’s lab in the Whitehead Institute at MIT working on the genetics and evolution of sperm development in flies. While my thesis work also focused on male fertility and ejaculate molecules, I really studied everything except​ the sperm, so I’m excited for a new challenge and excited to join a vibrant field that’s rooted deep within the history of Drosophila genetics. Coming from a functional and evolutionary genetics background, it’s also been really rewarding learning from my lab mates and advisor on totally new topics and techniques to me.

What does it mean to you to have been selected as a finalist for the SUNY Chancellor’s Dissertation Award?

I’m very grateful and honored to have been selected as a finalist for this award among all of the amazing researchers in the SUNY community. This recognition means a lot, as I think a lot of fundamental biology can be better understood (or even discovered) through an evolutionary lens. Understanding how evolution can shape reproductive processes can also help bridge research in different fields, leading to novel ideas and perspectives that otherwise might have been overlooked. 

What will this award allow you to do that you may not have otherwise?

Funds from this award will hopefully allow me to attend a conference or courses to develop new skills and connect with other researchers as I embark into a new field.

If you could go back in time to the beginning of your graduate career, what advice would you give yourself?

I would tell myself to cast a wide net for mentor figures—of course your advisor usually ends up being your main mentor, but talking to lots of other PIs/postdocs/senior grad students in your department or field can be extremely helpful in getting feedback or advice or ideas. I would also tell myself to find a crew of trusted peers as quickly as possible—the friends you make in grad school are in the trenches right alongside you, and can be an amazing source of support and advice both in and beyond grad school.