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Congratulations to the 2023 winners of the AAAG Outstanding Trainee Presentations in Anthropological Genetics (OTPAG) awards – Kelsey Witt, Samantha Queeno, and Clara Mariencheck. The OTPAG awards include a $200 cash prize and a one-year subscription to Human Biology.

Dr. Kelsey Witt – Best Postdoc Presentation
I am a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Dr. Emilia Huerta-Sanchez at Brown University. My background is in ancient DNA research, especially in the population history of domesticated animal species and how their histories can be informative of the humans they interacted with. My current work focuses on archaic introgression, and how archaic variants from Neanderthals and Denisovans affect modern human populations today. Broadly, I am interested in human population history and how gene flow and selection has shaped modern genomes.

My presentation at the AABAs was titled "Archaic variation is structured by ancestry in living admixed individuals". For this work, we analyzed published admixed American individuals, with ancestry from European, African, and Indigenous American populations, and assessed how archaic ancestry was distributed across their genomes. We found that archaic ancestry is more likely to be found in regions without African ancestry, and Denisovan ancestry specifically was more likely to be found in Indigenous American ancestry segments. We also focused on Indigenous American ancestry segments specifically and identified some candidate genes that have archaic variation and may have been adaptive prior to European colonization.

In Fall 2023, I will be starting my lab as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics and Biochemistry at Clemson University, affiliated with the Clemson Center for Human Genetics. I'm excited to continue my research into domestication and archaic introgression, and will be looking for students and postdocs in the coming months!

My favorite part of being an AAAG member is the relationships I have formed through the organization with mentors, collaborators, and friends. AAAG events are the highlight of my conference experience!

Clara Mariencheck – Best Student Poster Presentation
I am a Ph.D. candidate at The George Washington University with Dr. Brenda Bradley. My dissertation research examines potential genetic proximate mechanisms of increased female immunocompetence compared to males, or the ‘immunity gap,’ by characterizing variation at X-specific genes in chimpanzees.

My presentation at the 2023 AABAs titled “ X-linked variation in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) offers potential insights into sexual dimorphism of disease susceptibility” broadly assessed variation of X-specific immunity genes using both targeted sequencing and reference genome analysis. We identified several likely functional variants both in a small initial panel of unrelated chimpanzees and in the available reference data. In the next two years, we plan to expand our sample size to include more individuals from both captive and wild chimpanzee populations and examine genetic variation in combination with phenotypic markers of health and fitness.

I am grateful for the community of researchers and mentors that I have met through AAAG, as well as for the educational opportunities that the AAAG provides through workshops. I am extremely honored to have received the AAAG OTPAG award.

Samantha Queeno – Best Student Podium Presentation
I am a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oregon (advised by Dr. Kirstin Sterner) and member of the UO Molecular Anthropology Lab. I am broadly interested in human origins, the evolution of adaptive traits, the epigenome and population genetics. My dissertation research seeks to characterize regions of the genome that underlie interspecific differences in muscle myofiber content and muscular endurance, which may have been important for hominin bipedal locomotion.

My presentation at the 2023 AABAs titled “Human-specific variation in conserved embryonic enhancers may underlie differences in human skeletal muscle important for bipedal locomotion” presents results from my ongoing dissertation research and recent publication in press (Queeno et al., 2023). Humans are unique among primates in being the only obligate biped and are among a handful of mammals whose lower limb muscles are predominantly composed of fatigue-resistant slow myofibers. Species-specific differences in muscle myofiber content are largely attributed to differences in non-coding regions of the genome that control the expression of fast- and slow-myofiber genes during development. We have hypothesized that hominin-specific mutations within these regions enhance the expression of slow myofiber genes, leading to more slow-biased muscles and more efficient long-distance bipedal locomotion. Using RNA-seq and ATAC-seq, we identified 43 candidate embryonic enhancers associated with slow myofiber development that may have been under selection in the hominin lineage.

Over the coming months, I will be functionally testing hominin-specific variation within a subset of these candidate enhancers using luciferase reporter assays and completing my dissertation research. I will also be looking for positions both inside and outside academia given my diverse passions for teaching, research, science outreach and conservation. In particular, I am interested in a post-doctoral position that will allow me to continue research in human evolutionary genomics and strengthen my wet-lab and bioinformatics skills.

Being a part of AAAG has allowed me to stay abreast of all the incredibly interesting research being conducted in our field, and further my own intellectual curiosity and growth. The intellectual discourse, collaboration, networking, and opportunities to meet up with friends have been what I most look forward to at each AABA conference. In addition, it has been personally meaningful to be a part of a professional society that runs interesting, topical symposia and is equally passionate about addressing commonly held misconceptions about genetics.

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