Spotlight on.. Alex Little

29 April 2018 - By: Alex Evans

Spotlight on.. Alex Little 

Alex Little

By Alex Evans

At each SEB annual meeting, the spotlight is shone on some of the Society’s youngest and most ardent delegates during the Young Scientist Award sessions. In 2013, the Animal Section prize was awarded to Dr Alex Little for his talk on the ability of fish to alter their physiology during acclimation to a stressful environment - and if there’s anyone that can understand a stressful environment, it’s an early career researcher.


As well as winning the 2013 award at the SEB annual meeting in Valencia, Spain, Alex had also been shortlisted for the YSA at the 2011 meeting in Glasgow, UK. “In both cases it was just an honour to be shortlisted because there’s a lot of PhDs and postdocs doing really great science out there,” says Alex. “It meant a lot to be recognized for all the work I had done, and to present against other great researchers - one of whom currently employs me!”

Alex’s award-winning talk highlighted the work he had completed during his PhD. “Specifically, I found that the thyroid hormone regulates aerobic metabolism, muscle function and cardiac performance in zebrafish to maintain locomotor performance during cold exposure,” says Alex. These results were the first to identify the central regulator of thermal acclimation in an ectotherm, and provided new insights into the evolution of endothermy, as well as into how increasing levels of global pollution may compound the effects of climate change.

Alex’s journey into the world of fish physiology and environmental stressors first started during his BSc Honours degree, while studying with Professor Chris Moyes at Queen’s University, Canada. “I was looking for evidence of positive selection in genes that support aerobic metabolism in high performance f ish, including Lamnid sharks, tunas and billfishes,” he says. From there, Alex identified the next, and more specialised, direction in which he wanted to take his research. “During my PhD with Frank Seebacher at the University of Sydney, my interests shifted to the underlying pathways that regulate responses to environmental stress within an animal’s lifetime (plasticity),” he explains. Since then, Alex’s career has taken him around the world to some amazing locations, which he believes to be of the highlights of his career so far.


Alex is currently working as a postdoctoral fellow in the Eliason Lab at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Keen to integrate all levels of biological organisation in an effort to understand the physiological tradeoffs associated with plasticity, Alex’s work is now primarily focused on some of the smallest-scale processes at work. “I am currently investigating the most basic functional mechanisms that integrate environmental input with cellular responses,” explains Alex, “and I am specifically interested in nuclear receptors because they alter gene expression programs in response to small molecule compounds.” Building on the results of this work, Alex and his co-workers hope to interpret these changes in the context of wild populations facing the quickening onset of complex and uncertain environmental changes.

Gonad perfusion of female coho salmon (
Gonad perfusion of female coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) for isolated tissue respirometry Photo: Alex Little

In order to collect information on such small-scale interactions, Alex is armed with an impressive arsenal of techniques: “I couple physiological measures, including gene t ranscr iption, enzyme assays, swimming performance and aerobic scope with pharmacological interventions to block receptor pathways”. Alex also dabbles in gene editing and manipulation using gateway cloning technology and CRISPR transgenesis to focus on specific regulatory roles of these receptors in coordinating complex plastic responses. “We are also using invertebrate models, with only a subset of the nuclear receptor repertoire of vertebrates, to explore the regulation of plastic phenotypes,” adds Alex, “as these models provide an early benchmark to anchor the evolution of molecular pathways for plasticity”.

Alex also describes the exciting range of topics and species he currently finds himself working with: “I’m currently involved in projects looking at sex-specific differences in thermal tolerance in pacific salmon, and epigenetic regulators of plasticity in zebrafish.” However, he hopes to build on this work in order to look at the inherent costs of plasticity. “If we start to understand the specific mechanisms that control plastic responses to stressors in isolation, we can begin to make predictions about stressor combinations that drive interfering or incompatible pathways for plasticity.”


Following a career in research can seem like a daunting future for today’s young scientists. “I think funding is a definite challenge faced by early career researchers,” says Alex, “and postdoc life can be difficult because of a lack of opportunity and job security.” However, don’t be too disheartened, as Alex has some advice to keep in mind – especially for those thinking of applying for the SEB’s YSA in the future. “Apply for opportunities, even if you doubt your competitiveness,” he says, adding that it’s beneficial for young scientists to try taking on positions and projects that may be beyond their immediate research interests to widen their skillset and expand their experiences.

“Diversify your perspective in your own niche and it may help expand your platform for funding opportunities,” says Alex. Alex himself successfully applied for a 2-year postdoc in a drug screening lab at the University of Toronto - a position that seemed relatively unrelated to his fishy knowledge base, but the experience proved to be very useful for his research career as he explains: “I learned biomolecular techniques that I’m currently using to explore important gaps in comparative biology. My short stint in biomolecular science is also very appealing to grant agencies that require a more medical spin.”

Finally, Alex advises that early career researchers reach out to organisations and communities, such as the Society for Experimental Biology and the Company of Biologists, for both professional and financial support with their careers. “The SEB and CoB have been great in providing short-term funding opportunities for travel and training that can really help link together longer-term contracts and help eliminate gaps in CVs.” And of course, what better way to reach out to these organisations than to attend their annual meetings and apply for the YSA award yourself! “Society meetings are really great places to get your work out there and promote yourself,” says Alex, and adds “even after almost 5 years, grant panels and hiring committees always make the point to highlight my Young Scientist Award win from 2013.”


Category: Animal Biology
Alex evans- RS

Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a PhD student at the University of Leeds investigating the energetics of bird flight. In his spare time, Alex enjoys writing about the natural world, contributing to the Bird Brained Science blog and exploring other avenues of science communication.