To this day, Molly McDonough remains the only Angelo State graduate credited with discovering a new animal species, an accomplishment that has helped lead her to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
As a graduate student in 2006 working toward her ASU master’s degree in biology, McDonough was involved in a research project conducting molecular studies on specimens of the Wagner’s bonneted bats (Eumops glaucinus) native to South America. After finding chromosomal differences in some of the samples, she convinced her faculty mentor, Dr. Loren Ammerman, to lead a field trip to Ecuador to trap additional specimens.
Further studies of the specimens collected during the Ecuador trip confirmed that there was a previously unidentified species of bat that closely resembles Eumops glaucinus. McDonough and the rest of her research team were credited with the discovery and also got to name the new species, which they called Wilson’s bonneted bat, or Eumops wilsoni, after Dr. Don Wilson, a mammals curator at the Smithsonian.
After graduating from ASU, McDonough entered the doctoral program at Texas Tech University, earning her Ph.D. in December 2013. Just two months later, she began a two-year Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Smithsonian to conduct an original research project on the numerous species of pygmy gerbils in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
“I am using their DNA to estimate the actual number of species, when they got to Africa, and how the expansion and contraction of the Sahara over the last million years has influenced their distributions and population size,” McDonough said. “Rather than using tissue samples, which is the typical way genetic research like this is done, I am using ancient DNA techniques to extract DNA from museum specimens. Using this method allows me to sample museum specimens that were collected from all over the world, including regions that would be difficult to travel to today.”
“I found ASU to be a place that I could take my program in any direction that I preferred, whether it was coursework, lab work, attending scientific meetings, or fieldwork.”
With the conclusion of her first fellowship this month (Feb. 2016), McDonough will begin a second one—a Smithsonian Burch Postdoctoral Fellowship—screening historical museum specimens for pathogens.
“The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History houses thousands of rodent specimens,” McDonough said, “many of which were collected during the ‘African Mammal Project’ (1961–72) that sought to document mammals across 20 African countries while simultaneously screening for potential disease vectors. I will be utilizing this collection to attempt capturing DNA viruses from historical museum specimens.”
In addition to her postdoctoral fellowships, McDonough also works in the Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics at the Smithsonian National Zoo.
And she is not the only accomplished biologist in her family. Her husband, fellow ASU alum Adam Ferguson, is currently working on his own National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship studying small carnivore ecology in Kenya.
“Fortunately,” McDonough said, “my postdoc has allowed me several opportunities to conduct research in Africa, thereby allowing me to visit Adam at his field site. Recently, we conducted a re-survey of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909–1910 biological expedition on Mount Kenya. Data collected on that trip will allow us to investigate changes in mammal communities over a century.”
Why did you choose to attend ASU?
I chose ASU for my master’s degree because of the opportunity to work with specific faculty members in the Department of Biology. Additionally, I was looking for a program with a strong emphasis on natural history studies that provided students with hands-on experience.
How did ASU prepare you for your current position?
Faculty at ASU helped prepare me in a lot of ways for both my Ph.D. and my current position at the Smithsonian. At ASU I learned to think critically about topics in my field of interest. I also learned techniques in the molecular lab and during field trips that I still use almost every day. I also participated and gave talks at a lot of scientific meetings. All of those things helped to build my confidence as a scientist so that I could take it to the next level.
Is there a particular ASU professor who made a difference in your education, and how?
Dr. Loren Ammerman, a professor in the Department of Biology, was integral toward my development as a scientist. In addition to serving as my advisor, she has served as a mentor for helping navigate through all aspects of my academic career. We spent a lot of time together while I was at ASU. She taught me how to do molecular lab work, analyze data, present research, and survey for bats. The time I spent with her was invaluable, and I hope that someday I have this type of relationship with my own students.
What was your favorite place on campus, and why?
I spent most of my time at the Cavness Science Building. I really enjoyed my time in the molecular laboratory and in the Angelo State Natural History Collections. I thought it was pretty cool to hear cactus wrens that nested right outside the graduate student offices. However, the best times I had at ASU were when the biology program took me off campus. I had the opportunity to conduct bat surveys in some really amazing places, including Big Bend National Park, the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, Mexico and Ecuador.
What would you say to prospective students who are considering attending ASU?
Prospective students who are considering ASU for their undergraduate or master’s degree program should definitely look into all of the opportunities that the university has to offer. For example, since I’ve graduated there are now many more opportunities for students to gain international experiences. I found ASU to be a place that I could take my program in any direction that I preferred, whether it was coursework, lab work, attending scientific meetings, or fieldwork. Faculty members at ASU are extremely supportive, incredibly engaging, and make you feel like you are part of a community.