Alex Long, ’17, came to Richmond set on studying to become a doctor. He assumed he would conduct undergraduate research related to human biology, working toward his goal of attending medical school. So how did he wind up studying frog speciation

After taking biology professor Rafael de Sà’s evolution class and loving it, someone mentioned to Long that de Sà had an opening in his lab.

De Sà has spent the past 25 years studying frog speciation, using DNA sequencing to determine subtle genetic and physical differences between species, including some that may not even be visible. His most recent project involved gathering specimens of humming frogs in the Atlantic Forest in Brazil and mapping their DNA. He wanted to determine if they were all part of one large species, or if there were several smaller species contained within the large group.

“I didn’t care that we were working with frogs, rather than on human biology,” Long said. “I knew he was the mentor that I wanted.”

Long came into the lab as a few other students were graduating, which gave him the opportunity to learn from them before taking a leadership role after they left. The summer after his sophomore year, he was able to go to a conference with Dr. de Sà where the two learned about a technique called next generation sequencing, which uses the computer program Linux to run the same DNA sequencing that de Sà had been using, only with faster results. “It gives you a tree at the end of speciation with such precision and accuracy that it’s leaps and bounds ahead of anything that had been done here previously,” Long said.

The only problem: no one in de Sà’s lab knew how to use Linux. “My previous computer experience was basically being really good at Microsoft Office,” Long joked. “But because I knew how much this project meant to the lab, and I saw it’s potential, I taught myself to use Linux so that I could take all of the samples that we had from Brazil and run them through the program.”

Long’s efforts paid off. “At the end of the initial computer sequencing, we came out with three new species of frogs, with incredible precision and statistical confidence in our data,” he said. “The potential of our work makes me happy, and I’m happy to be part of Dr. de Sa’s research because of how much he cares about it.”

Long says his time in de Sà’s lab has also reinforced his love for science. “People have to put in the work, and spend their whole lives devoted to their passion, and after seeing that in Dr. de Sà, I realized that it’s reassuring that we have scientists to take these niche jobs and interests to make sure knowledge is proliferating,” Long said.

Long is still planning on going to medical school, but with three years before his MCAT score expires, he decided to take a detour. He’ll pursue a master’s degree in biomedical science policy and advocacy at Georgetown. “This program focuses on the policy aspects and how you can talk to people about science; it can be a scary time to be a scientist, which is why I’m excited to learn how to advocate for myself and other scientists make sure that research and data sets aren’t lost, and that research programs aren’t shut down.”

While Long didn’t anticipate the research path he would take, he’s grateful for all he’s gained. “Through this experience, I got to learn more than I ever thought; I learned about molecular biology, computations, and ecology, and I taught myself to use a software program I had no familiarity with.”

He also sees the bigger picture of how his work might play a larger role in animal conservation. “If we find a frog species that hasn’t been previously defined, and it’s in a very small pocket of land in Brazil, we have the information to advocate to protect that land because it houses an endangered species,” he said.