Biology Doctoral Candidate Dominic Evangelista Wins Prestigious NSF Award

Rutgers University–Newark Ph.D. student Dominic Evangelista has just been awarded the prestigious Post-Doc Research Fellowship in Biology from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Evangelista, an evolutionary biologist, will use his two-year, $160,000 grant to work with a research team at the French National Museum of Natural History, in Paris, mapping the evolution of cockroach species never before studied using genomic data.

“This is a huge honor, one that is very important to my career,” says Evangelista, who has carved out a niche as one of a handful of cockroach experts worldwide. “One needs grants to succeed in academia, and this is my first major one. It’s a welcome affirmation that I can work hard and be successful in this field.”

While insects have gotten the lion’s share of attention from taxonomists over the last 300 years, cockroaches have been sorely neglected.

There are approximately 4,500 known species. According to Evangelista, scientists have looked at the evolution of no more than 50. He’ll examine 100 spread out among various families in the cockroach kingdom and in this way will get a much more comprehensive view of their evolutionary history.

“About 150 million years ago, there was one species,” says Evangelista. “And now there are more than 4,500. Our goal is to map how we got to our current number from the original one.”

He’ll do this using not only traditional morphology techniques but also DNA barcoding and other genetic ID methods, which puts him in rarefied company. According to RU-N Biology Professor Jessica Ware, whose lab Evangelista has worked in for the last six years, he’s in a class all by himself.

“Not only is there just a handful of cockroach experts throughout the world, but there are even fewer who work on the genetics of roaches,” says Ware, whose own groundbreaking work on dragonflies has drawn international attention. “And with this NSF grant, Dominic will be doing frontier science, looking at a truly under-sampled group called the Blabroidea super-family of cockroaches, which has some unique attributes.”

Back in December 2013, Ware and Evangelista made headlines around the world when they identified a cockroach species never before seen in the U.S.—in New York City of all places. Evangelista played the lead role in making the identification using DNA barcoding.

Evangelista has a long history at RU-N. He arrived here as an undergraduate biology major back in 2005 and moved into the Ph.D. program five years later. He’ll defend his dissertation in April and is excited to move on to Paris.

Ware has charted his growth throughout graduate school and is thrilled by the news.

“It’s been amazing to see Dominic’s journey, since it often takes a long time for students to turn their curiosity into a systematic work ethic that produces good science,” says Ware. “But he did it within two years because he approached his work as if he was always doing science—and wrote grants, published and gave talks. These NSF grants are extremely competitive, and this funding will open a lot of doors. I couldn’t be happier for him.”