Julie Urban, Ph.D.
Assistant Director, Genomics & Microbiology Laboratory
Nature Research Center, NC Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh, NC
BA University of Dayton, 1990, Psychology
PhD University of Central Florida, 1995, Human Factors Psychology
MS University at Albany, State University of New York, 2005, Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior
PhD University at Albany, State University of New York, 2008, Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior
Dr. Urban is an evolutionary biologist whose primary interests focus on planthoppers, a diverse and often morphologically bizarre group of sap-feeding insects in the Order Hemiptera. Dr. Urban combines DNA sequence data with features of insect morphology to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the planthoppers. Because the planthopper lineage is estimated to be more than 140 million years old, Dr. Urban’s reconstructions of their evolutionary history allow her to test hypotheses concerning biogeography (how different planthopper lineages have diversified as they have colonized various regions of the planet), morphological character evolution (documenting gains and losses of novel features, such as elaborate wax plumes, or the unusually shaped head structures observed in species commonly known as the “peanut-headed bug” or the “dragon-headed bug”), and co-evolution of planthoppers with bacterial endosymbionts.
To perform this work, Dr. Urban collects insects in areas of high biodiversity, which to date has included international sites (Belize, Costa Rica, Peru, French Guiana, Nicaragua, Ghana, Zambia, India, and Malaysian Borneo) as well as sites in the US, particularly in Arizona, California, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. In the laboratory, Dr. Urban is currently working on sequencing the genomes of multiple bacteria that have co-evolved with the planthoppers to test whether these bacteria are provisioning nutrients to the insects that are not available in their plant-sap diet, and/or whether these bacteria are serving some other metabolic function (e.g., making waxes or detoxifying plant compounds). In addition to potentially revealing novel metabolic pathways that could have some useful applications for humans, her study of these bacteria provides insight into possible mechanisms by which planthopper rice pests can be controlled.
Dr. Urban received a Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior from the University at Albany, and her work on planthopper evolution earned her the Distinguished Doctoral Dissertation Award given to the best dissertation in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University (2008). In collaboration with her former thesis advisor, Dr. Jason Cryan, Dr. Urban was awarded a National Science Foundation Systematic Biology Grant to continue her work on planthoppers and their bacterial endosymbionts (planthopper.com). Prior to her pursuit of evolutionary biology, Dr. Urban received a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology from the University of Central Florida, where she studied military team decision making and performance.