Under the Lens: Abdel Halloway

“Everyone’s ignorant about something and that’s why you go to school, that’s why you get training. If you’re authentic people will be fine with you just being who you are.”

“Everyone’s ignorant about something and that’s why you go to school, that’s why you get training. If you’re authentic people will be fine with you just being who you are.”


Abdel Halloway is a PhD candidate in the Ecology and Evolution program at UIC. He works in Joel Brown’s Lab with a group of evolutionary ecologists who study how organisms respond to and evolve in their environment. Abdel has previously studied the geographical distribution and feeding behavior of hawkmoths, sunbirds and hummingbirds. Currently he researches how species interact with each other in artificial ecosystems that he constructs and manipulates on a computer.

I wanted to interview Abdel because he faces a major challenge explaining his research not only to the general public, but even his own peers and faculty members within the Ecology and Evolution program. Unlike many of us in the BIOS department, Abdel relies primarily on mathematical models to conduct his research. Having endured blank stares from audiences during talks in the past, he is now intent on making his research more accessible and interesting to all. Abdel’s purely mathematical approach to research within Ecology and Evolution is unique, and he is working to bring a new perspective to the field by articulating the power of math in our understanding and prediction of patterns in nature.

Describe your research to your grandma.

I study how animals’ body parts shape their interactions with plants. Most people do this in the actual real world – I make fake worlds on a computer to study them, since I can’t study them in the real world (due to a health condition). In my fake worlds, I’m assuming that each species feeds on a single kind of food. You can add predators to these worlds and you can change how much food there is. These fake worlds are very, very, very simple. It’s more like we’re simulating bacteria in a petri dish - we’re simulating first life. Some people might say that they don’t look anything like the real world, which is very true. But it’s a step in a forward direction towards learning how to predict species interactions.

How many species can exist in a single place in the world? Do we expect there to be a lot of species, or few species and what does that depend on? How does the process of evolution of new species work, and what controls this process? In the real world, there are a certain number of species within an ecosystem. I’m trying to see how many species we can have in my fake worlds and what this means for how they interact with one another.

Why do you think your research is interesting?

We’re working on some level with the fundamental realities of nature. I think one thing is the universality of it, that’s why I really love mathematics. There are some people who study the one insect or the one plant, and study it to death - and good on you. But for me, I like to study all aspects. When I learned Darwin’s four principles of natural selection -- variation, heritable traits, fitness and environmental selection -- those are four principles that govern all life, not just on earth. So you can imagine natural selection occurring on some other planet. The work I’m doing won’t necessarily tell you about the details of the environment in which evolution occurs, but it still has that wonderful general application. It’s just so simple and fundamental.

Why did you want to be a PhD student?

I decided to do a PhD because I like studying. I like asking questions, and I just like learning. And I don’t want to stop learning. It’s usually like that. This is what I want to do and this is what I enjoy. Why not make a career out of it?

How did you get interested in Ecology and Evolution?

I came (to college) with the original assumption that I was going to be a doctor. It was spring of 2009. I took an ecology and evolution course (BioS 230) with Dr. Wolf, and there were so many other things that were happening. February 12th was Darwin Day (200th anniversary of his birth and 150th anniversary of "On the Origin of Species"). There was an AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting in Chicago that started on Darwin Day. So in 2009 there was just this whirlwind of evolution stuff. I started reading books and I got interested in it. I read Sean B. Carroll’s book, Remarkable Creatures. It was the stories of all these people who went out and did evolutionary research – and it was just like, I want to do this! The other two books I read that year were Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin and Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne, and those books were great as well. My appreciation for nature and natural historians like Darwin was always there, I only recognized my interest in evolution at this time when all of these things happened at once.

How did you get interested in your field of research?

I knew I had this health condition. I thought I was going to do lab experiments and use economic knowledge. Taking Dr. Brown’s Population Ecology course was in some ways my first real experience with ecology and evolution. I’m taking that course, I’m learning how to do R programming and I’m enjoying it. It’s fun for me. Towards the end of the course, Dr. Brown approached me about doing a project with him modelling multiple species in a simulated ecosystem. Writing the code that could model more than just one species would be cumbersome, though. I got in contact with Gord (a previous post-doc in the Brown lab) one day through email him to ask him “Do you have a code that naturally adds species without me having to re-write it?” He didn’t, unfortunately, but we started emailing back and forth and within a day we had something we could use to add as many species as we want. We used the code to model up to 1024 species.

Why is your research necessary?

We’re able to have diversity because of what happened early in the natural world. We just took what was already in the natural world and tailored it to us (humans). We took an apple and made it bigger and sweeter. We wouldn’t be here without biodiversity. So if my research is fundamental to understanding biodiversity – by revealing the properties which govern species interactions and the creation of new species then it’s fundamental to humans. Understanding what leads to biodiversity, and how we can preserve and harness it I think is something that will come from this.

What do you plan to do after your PhD?

Oh, that’s a question…Preferably a post-doc and then university…If I could be anything, I would be a gentleman scientist. Darwin had it good. (If I’m a gentleman scientist) I’m self-funded, I do the experiments I want, I’m not beholden to anybody – that would be super awesome, right? I want to be a professor without having all the expectations of the usual professor work.

What do you do when you're not doing research?

I watch a lot of soccer (Arsenal in the premier league, that’s my team) – the Euros and Copa America. I like to read about different things, like cities. I don’t know why, but cities always fascinated me. I watch silly YouTube videos. The usual stuff, right? And I also follow politics. And not just American politics, I follow international politics. I’ve been watching the stuff with France and the EU and Boris Johnson.

What do you love most about being a PhD student?

The freedom to explore my interests.

What do you dislike most about being a PhD student?

Maybe it’s the fear of not knowing what’s going to come. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I’m not set in my career path as of yet.

What advice do you have for other PhD students?

I don’t think I should be giving advice…Just be you. It’s such a cliché, but don’t try to be anything you’re not. If you don’t know, you don’t know, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone’s ignorant about something and that’s why you go to school, that’s why you get training. If you’re authentic, people will be fine with you just being who you are. As long as you’re not a dick, right? Try not to be a dick.

What would you rather be doing than a PhD?

When I was younger I really wanted to be a wildlife documentary-maker. I don’t watch them a lot now, but growing up I really liked them. I loved the "Planet Earth" series. Other than that, I would’ve become a doctor. My dad is a doctor. That would have made him happy.

Favorite TV show?

Premier league weekend soccer.

Favorite restaurant in Chicago?

Medici on 57th. It’s just like a college dive. They have sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, that sort of food. It’s one of those heart-attack sandwich places, but it’s really well done and they use really nice ingredients.

Abdel passed his prelims in February of this year and is entering the fifth year of his degree no longer as a student, but now a PhD candidate. He intends to continue learning how to communicate his research and scientific interests to others. He will be attending ComSciCon Chicago 2016, a two-day workshop in August that is meant to help graduate students develop skills in communicating science to the public, an endeavour we are also trying to achieve with our BGSA newsletter. Here’s wishing him good luck!

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.