Biology dissertation nabbing attention, top honours

It’s quite a fish story. Tim Hain, Bsc’04, PhD’16 (Biology), received the T.W.M. Cameron Outstanding PhD Thesis Award, presented by the Canadian Society of Zoologists, recognizing the author of an outstanding PhD thesis in Zoology submitted to a Canadian university.

Adela Talbot // Western NewsIt’s quite a fish story. Tim Hain, Bsc’04, PhD’16 (Biology), received the T.W.M. Cameron Outstanding PhD Thesis Award, presented by the Canadian Society of Zoologists, recognizing the author of an outstanding PhD thesis in Zoology submitted to a Canadian university.

Long before Tim Hain, BSc’04, PhD’16 (Biology), completed his dissertation, his work was gaining considerable traction.

Hain successfully defended his PhD dissertation in December 2016. Four months earlier he had published four papers in peer-reviewed journals, which have already collectively accumulated more than 100 citations. One of those papers was the cover article in the journal Current Biology, and was profiled in accompanying ‘Dispatch’ commentary.

And now, Hain’s doctoral work has been recognized with the T.W.M. Cameron Outstanding PhD Thesis Award, presented by the Canadian Society of Zoologists, recognizing the author of an outstanding PhD thesis in Zoology submitted to a Canadian university.

All this came out of a keen interest in fish – inspired by Bryan Neff, a Biology professor and the Faculty of Science Associate Dean (Research), while Hain was still an undergraduate.

“(Bryan) taught me third-year Animal Behaviour, and showed us a lot of images of his study species – the bluegill sunfish. He was very enthusiastic about it, and I was very enthusiastic about that,” Hain said.

Hain ended up working with Neff on his fourth-year project studying guppies and looking at their social behaviour and ability to recognize their own relatives. He enjoyed it and was doing such great work Hain was invited to pursue graduate work in Neff’s lab, working on kin selection in both guppies and the bluegill sunfish.

“Both the bluegill and guppies are interesting species because they are promiscuous. That makes it very hard in the case of the bluegill, for the father to know which of the kids are his own and if he should invest care in them,” Hain explained.

“In the case of guppies and bluegills, as well, the juveniles don’t know who they are related to. This is relevant for a big theory in social behaviour called kin selection – the idea you can further the success of your own genes if you help your brothers and sisters survive,” he continued.

Hain’s doctoral research looked at how these two species of fish could recognize their relatives. He looked at ecological variables that might explain the use of one recognition mechanism over another.

To determine if individual fish can recognize kin based only on their own characteristics – by “self-referencing” – Hain used an in vitro fertilization approach, where eggs of differing parentage were mixed immediately after fertilization to remove any exposure to relatives during larval development. After the eggs hatched, genetic parentage analysis was used to re-establish the various pedigrees and to determine if offspring who had been raised without any cues of relatedness could still differentiate between kin and non-kin, explained Neff and Biology Chair Brent Sinclair.

Hain was able to provide conclusive evidence of self-referent phenotype matching (meaning fish can recognize one another based on their own characteristics) and resolve a longstanding debate in the literature about the importance of kin selection theory.

As he was working on his dissertation, Hain realized he could “oversell” his work, too.

“A lot of the mechanisms used by animals are the same mechanisms used by the human immune system,” he said. “So, if there are problems in recognition for fish, if they can’t recognize their relatives properly, it could be the same dysfunctional molecules that cause auto-immune diseases in humans. That’s speculative but it’s something that I am giving more thought to.”

For Hain, the award is an honour – one that sits among a number of academic scholarships, awards and achievements. As a graduate student, he received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. He won two separate graduate student teaching awards for his work as a lab instructor, while supervising multiple undergraduate research projects and providing leadership to other graduate students on experimental design and scholarship.

Neff and Sinclair both call Hain a “true scholar,” one who demonstrates excellence in research, teaching and service.

“I’m teaching at Western for now, working on some review papers based on my thesis. I’m building up my resume and hoping to find teaching and research positions after that,” Hain said.