Jenna Ekwealor

Jenna Ekwealor

I have always been a friend to the small and unappreciated.

My mother likes to tell stories of how when I was a kid, we’d go into a toy store for some special occasion, where she would tell my brother and I we could each pick one toy. My brother would take his time, weighing the pros and cons of each choice until he found the perfect one. I, on the other hand, would march straight to the nature-themed section and confidently select a large, rubber insect. I have some memories like this. It’s not that I was particularly interested in insects, per se, I think I just felt like someone had to befriend the ones that so frequently were ignored.

I was born in San Jose, California, but I grew up in the middle of the United States. No great mountains or exciting deserts there, but one thing we can boast about is the abundance of fireflies in the summer, or, as locals called them: lightning bugs. Kids used to squish them onto their shirt to have a glowing smear for a few minutes. In retrospect, that’s fascinating biochemistry! But at the time, I protested and stood up for the bugs.

So, although I had never paid much attention to mosses before graduate school (and perhaps it’s precisely because I had neglected mosses my whole life that I became interested in them), it’s not out of character for me to become infatuated with and an ambassador for these small, strange, frequently unappreciated and unassuming plants.

I became interested in bryophytes under the mentorship of Dr. Kirsten Fisher. Kirsten introduced me to mosses that live in the Mojave Desert and from that moment on, I was captivated. These mosses are the toughest of tough: they live through long, hot, and very dry summers and cold, even snowy, winters. They dry out completely and shut down when water is unavailable, baking in the sun, waiting for as long as it takes. When it rains again, these plants quickly open their leaves (a process that resembles a time lapse video of a blooming flower) and get to work immediately. They can live for hundreds of years, cloning into identical copies of themselves. In fact, all mosses can dry out (as they don’t have roots or sophisticated water storage capabilities), desert mosses can just endure drier conditions and recover a bit faster. Strange as it may sound, I find these small, resilient organisms inspiring.

I now consider myself somewhat of a moss evangelist.

The thing I love to share most about studying bryophytes is the way it transforms the way you see the world. In most places (even deserts!) mosses are everywhere yet most people don’t notice them. Once you do, however, you see so much more than you did before! Seeing bryophytes allows you to appreciate a whole new world right in front of your eyes, in and amongst the world you thought you knew so well.

Jenna is currently a Biodiversity Genomics Postdoctoral Fellow in the Smithsonian Institution’s Data Science Lab where she is studying evolutionary history of Syntrichia. She earned her PhD from University of California, Berkeley, Department of Integrative Biology in 2020, studying ultraviolet radiation and desiccation tolerance in Mojave Desert Syntrichia mosses; a Master of Science in Environmental Science, Biology Option, from California State University, Los Angeles, in 2015, where she studied life history and population genetics in Mojave Syntrichia caninervis; a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Purdue University, Indianapolis, in 2012; and a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Indiana University, Indianapolis, in 2012.

List of publications:

8.   Ekwealor, JTB, SD Benjamin, JZ Jomsky, MA Bowker, LR Stark, DN McLetchie, BD Mishler, and KM Fisher. Genotypic confirmation of a biased phenotypic sex ratio in a dryland moss using a novel RFLP technique. Accepted in Applications in Plant Sciences.

7.   Ekwealor, JTB and BD Mishler. The transcriptomic effects of acute ultraviolet radiation exposure on two Syntrichia mosses. Frontiers in Plant Science (2021), DOI: 10.3389/fpls.2021.752913.

6.   Ekwealor, JTB, TA Clark, O Dautermann, A Russell, S Ebrahimi, LR Stark, KK Niyogi, and BD Mishler. Natural ultraviolet radiation exposure alters photosynthetic biology and improves recovery from desiccation in a desert moss. Journal of Experimental Botany (2021), DOI: ?10.1093/jxb/erab051.

5.   Silva, Anderson T., B Gao, KM Fisher, BD Mishler, JTB Ekwealor, LR Stark, X Li, D Zhang, MA Bowker, JC Brinda, KK Coe, and MJ Oliver. To dry perchance to live: insights from the genome of the desiccation-tolerant biocrust moss Syntrichia caninervis. The Plant Journal (2020), DOI: ?10.1111/tpj.15116.

4.   Ekwealor, JTB and KM Fisher. Life under quartz: Hypolithic mosses in the Mojave Desert. PLOS ONE 15(7): ?e0235928 (2020), DOI: ?10.1371/journal.pone.0235928. Press & Interviews: UCB Press Release, Smithsonian Magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times: Trilobites, Science Friday, WTF, Biology?, Scientific American, Scienmag Science Magazine, Phys.org, EurekAlert!, Pro Science, Wissenschaft.de.

3.   Ekwealor, JTB, AC Payton, AE Paasch, KM Fisher, and SF McDaniel. Multiple factors influence population sex ratios in the Mojave Desert moss Syntrichia caninervis. American Journal of Botany 104(5):1-10 (2017), DOI: 10.3732/ajb.1700045.

2.   Meijome, Tomás E.*, JTB Ekwealor*, RA Hooker Y Cheng, WA Ciovacco, SA Balamohan, TL Srinivasan, BR Chitteti, PP Eleniste, MC Horowitz, EF Srour, A Bruzzaniti, RK Fuchs, and MA Kacena. C-Mpl is expressed on osteoblasts and osteoclasts and is important in regulating skeletal homeostasis. Journal of Cellular Biochemistry 117:959-969 (2016), DOI: 10.1002/jcb.25380.

1. Eleniste, Pierre P., V Patel, S Posritong, O Zero, H Largura, Y Cheng, ER Himes, M Hamilton, JTB Ekwealor, MA Kacena, and A Bruzzaniti. Pyk2 and megakaryocytes regulate osteoblast differentiation and migration via distinct and overlapping mechanisms. Journal of Cellular Biochemistry 9999:1-11 (2015), DOI: 10.1002/jcb.25430.