Maya Woolfolk, a PhD candidate in the lab of Hopi Hoekstra, has been awarded the 2022 Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The Gilliam Fellowship is granted to students from populations underrepresented in science who have the promise to become leaders in their fields.
“I’m thrilled to be selected for this fellowship,” says Woolfolk. “As hopefully a future professor, I try to take part in things that give me experience and will make me a better mentor and a better teacher and better at outreach to the community.”
Woolfolk studies the vocalizations made by neonatal deer mice. She is looking at the evolutionary drivers behind these vocalizations and the genetic basis of variation in this behavior in closely related species. This work has bigger-picture implications for understanding what mechanisms facilitate the evolution of innate behaviors and how certain behaviors evolve within different natural constraints.
HHMI’s Gilliam Fellowship is unique, in that while Woolfolk has been awarded $50,000 to support her research, Hoekstra has also been awarded $3,000 to pursue the creation of a meaningful diversity and inclusion program.
“We talk about power dynamics in academia and there’s a lot that grad students, postdocs and other trainees can do, but it’s really nice when PIs take initiative to try to make some change, too,” says Woolfolk.
Hoekstra is thrilled to have the opportunity to expand her mentoring toolkit.
“I’m very grateful HHMI has decided to lead the way and invest in programs like the Gilliam Fellowship, which takes an active role in promoting diversity in science,” says Hoekstra. “I am especially excited to team up with Maya in this program. Our Gilliam funds will be used to bring early career scientists from diverse backgrounds to Harvard – to introduce them to our community, to hear about their scientific achievements, and to have our trainees learn from and be inspired by them.”
Woolfolk is excited to be part of the Gilliam Fellowship’s group of like-minded, purpose-driven scientists.
“Part of what was attractive to me was just the overall mission of the fellowship. They really want to increase diversity and inclusion in what they call the scientific enterprise,” says Woolfolk. “But, also, once you are a fellow, there’s a real community. They really put an emphasis on bringing us together for meetings and helping us make these networks that will allow us to reach our goals.”
Woolfolk became interested in evolutionary genetics during her time at the University of Kentucky, where she worked in the lab of Catherine Linnen—a former postdoctoral fellow of Hoekstra’s. She also learned about Hoekstra’s contributions to the field throughout her coursework, and so Woolfolk fit right into the Hoekstra lab when she joined in 2020.
“I just love it. It’s been a great, supportive environment for me,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine being in a better lab with a better group of people.”