Professors Erika Ebbs and Stephen Harris
to Study Symbiotic Communities

Purchase College, SUNY has announced that Professors Erika Ebbs and Stephen Harris have been awarded a major grant by the National Science Foundation to support their research.


The grant is administered under an NSF program that aims to build research capacity of new faculty in biology and provides funding for equipment, supplies, technical assistance and other expenses, and will support numerous student research projects over the coming three years.  


Their project is entitled “BRC-BIO – Expanding the ‘community’ in Community Genetics: Infracommunity genomics of duck symbionts to determine the eco-evolutionary factors underpinning holobiont evolution.” 


The project focuses on symbiotic communities, which are situations where one species (the host) has other species (various kinds of microbes) living in or around it and they all rely on and co-evolve with each other. In the specific research to be undertaken by Dr. Ebbs, Dr. Harris, and their students, the hosts species are ducks and the microbes include particular viruses and parasites. Using state-of-the-art methods and equipment for genomic sequencing, the research will yield a fuller understanding of the population genetics and evolutionary dynamics of symbiotic communities, which have been relatively understudied until now. 


Dr. Ebbs said, “We hope to better understand how and why symbiotic communities form, specifically in relation to the hosts’ (ducks) ecology. For example, how migration, habitat choice, and feeding behavior might determine the parasite communities within hosts. Waterfowl harbor numerous zoonotic diseases (animal to human transmission), and we hope that understanding symbiotic communities within these hosts over different ecological variables will help us predict how such zoonotic diseases might be affected by human-mediated change.”


This work will also provide critical primary data for understudied an/or novel organisms and viruses. It will also fund the development of three Course based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CURE) within the Biology Department at Purchase.


Purchase College President Dr. Milagros (Milly) Peña said, “I congratulate Drs. Ebbs and Harris on this prestigious grant, and on their dedication to fostering undergraduate science education and research. Their close mentorship and hands-on teaching will have a profound effect on their students and generations of future scientists.  We look forward to their continued success in the classroom, lab, and beyond.”


Assistant Professor of Biology, Dr. Erika Ebbs, is a SUNY PRODiG fellow. The PRODiG program aims to inspire underrepresented students by increasing the diversity of SUNY faculty across the system. 


Dr. Ebbs received her BS in Biology from California State University, Fresno in 2011 and a PhD in Biology from the University of New Mexico in 2018. She is an Evolutionary Parasitologist who uses population genetic, phylogenetic and ecological tools to understand host-parasite relationships across time and space. Specifically, her work focuses on a group of trematode parasites of medical and veterinary importance known as Schistosomes.


She is primarily interested in species of zoonotic importance, which are known to cause Human Cercarial Dermatitis (a.k.a. Swimmer’s Itch) globally. Her PhD work focused on the Evolutionary Ecology of schistosomes of waterfowl and their aquatic snail intermediate hosts and addressed how host specific traits may influence parasite microevolutionary patterns. She is also interested in the population genetics, distribution and invasion of aquatic snails.


At the University of New Mexico, she also worked through the Museum of Southwestern Biology, Parasite Division where she worked to expand the collection through field efforts in South Africa, Argentina and throughout North America. She is also passionate about science education and biology outreach, specifically in relation to Parasitology.

Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Stephen Harris received a BS in molecular genetics from Ohio State University in 2006, an MA in science education from the City College of New York, and a PhD in evolutionary biology from the Graduate Center, City University of New York, in 2015. His research uses genomics and bioinformatics to study the evolution, ecology, and behavior of natural populations in response to environmental change. 


His PhD research focused on urban ecology and investigated the population genomics of urban white-footed mice in New York City. Following his graduate studies, he completed one postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University in the Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology Department, studying local extinction in eusocial snapping shrimp across the Caribbean. He moved on to a postdoctoral researcher position at Metabiota and a visiting scholar appointment at Stanford University, where he used metagenomics to identify and track novel viruses from bats and rodents in Africa and Asia.


He has performed field work in urban ecosystems in New York City, coral reefs in the Florida Keys and Belize, and tropical forests in Indonesia, which has led to a passion for democratizing science by using the latest innovations in biotechnology to build portable, low-cost, and user-friendly sequencing labs for research and education.  In pursuing this mission, he recently co-founded and is Director of Science-Corps, which sends recent PhD graduates abroad to teach science and build science capacity globally.