Patricia Brennan, Biological Sciences

“Lots of smart students on campus are interested in research opportunities and I look forward to collaborating with them to produce publishable results.”

Name: Patricia Brennan

Title: Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences

Department: Biological Sciences

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Areas of study: Evolution of vertebrate reproductive structures, sexual selection, sexual conflict, sexual behavior of animals

Research focus: I am interested in the evolution of genital morphology in vertebrates, and the mechanisms that drive genital diversification, sexual conflict in particular. I got my B.S. in marine biology from my native Colombia, where I studied the cardiac physiology of marine mammals. I went on to work in the Galapagos Islands aboard a research vessel, the R/V Odyssey, for a year. I completed my Ph.D. dissertation at Cornell University, where I studied the breeding biology and reproductive system of the great tinamou (Tinamus major), a basal bird from South America related to the ostrich. During this time I developed an interest on post-copulatory selection in birds, and went on to do my post-doctoral work on genital and sperm traits in ducks.  My current interests have expanded to understanding genital evolution in vertebrates, in particular examining female genital morphology and co-evolution.

What drew you to this field: I was doing my Ph.D. research in Costa Rica, studying a very secretive bird. One time I saw two of them mating, and was shocked to see that the male had a penis. I was not aware that some birds had penises. When I went back to Cornell, I discovered that there was almost no research examining genitalia in birds at all, so I wrote a post-doctoral project to do this. I was awarded the grant — and the freedom to investigate this little-known area of biology.

Why Mount Holyoke: I love the small classes where I get a chance to really get to know my students as individuals. I enjoy the dedication and hard work that students at Mount Holyoke put into their classes. There are lots of driven, smart students on this campus who are interested in research opportunities, and I look forward to collaborating with them in my research to produce high-quality, novel, publishable results.

About teaching: The immense pleasure of inspiring students. My students are often surprised and awed at the beauty and unpredictability that can be found in biology, and seeing them discover this first-hand is just wonderful! I get to show them not just the things we know, but also the things that we have yet to discover, so that they may consider becoming scientists themselves.

Proudest accomplishments, academic or other: Coming from a middle-class family in Colombia and getting a Ph.D. at Cornell University was a huge step for me. I did not speak English very well when I started my doctorate, so it was a challenge. Getting a post-doctoral fellowship to work with at Yale University and the University of Sheffield challenged and inspired me in new ways. Finally, discovering the fascinating reproductive morphology of female ducks, and becoming well known for my contributions to the field of sexual conflict and genital evolution has been very rewarding.

Favorite previous volunteer experience: I was a member of the board of directors of the Maria Mitchell Association in Nantucket, Massachusetts, for seven years. Maria Mitchell was the first female astronomer, and the first female professor to teach at Vassar College. She was a real trailblazer. Helping to continue her inspiring legacy was thrilling.

The campus and region: My husband and I moved to nearby Amherst to run a farm, so we landed here several years ago. We were attracted to the combination of farming and academia, which is more prevalent in this region than anywhere else in the United States. We love being in the countryside, yet close enough to drive to Boston or New York City for a day or a short weekend.

Favorite class as an undergraduate: Ichthyology! The study of fish. I got to learn a lot about diversity and all types of cool fish. We went scuba diving a few times to identify the fish in the reefs. It was amazing.

When not working: I love biking and regularly commute from Amherst on my bike when the weather is nice. I also love to bake fancy desserts, and to cook. I spend time with my family (husband and two  daughters) at the farm, or we go to sports competitions, practices and parties.

Books, authors, music, movie: I read all the time in any genre. The two books currently in my nightstand are “How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution” by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, and “Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island” by Will Harlan. I love Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. I listen to everything but I do love Shakira. My favorite movie is The Godfather series: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli!”

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