ADI Spotlight: Christopher Lawrence

Sept. 2, 2022

Christopher Lawrence

Department: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 
Program Year: G4 (with Covid G3) Who is keeping track?!
Undergraduate Institution: Iowa State University degree in Genetics and minor in Science Communication / University of Tulsa Masters in Biological Sciences

Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky (pronounced Loo-a-vuhl)
ADI Affiliations:

  • GSP Mentee (former)
  • BGC (Black Graduate Caucus) President
  • IQI (Intersecting Queer Identities/Queer Graduate Caucus) member


Tell us about your background.

I grew up lower middle class in a predominantly black neighborhood, two doors down from my father’s parents and the home he grew up in. My parents were always working so I spent a great deal of time with my grandparents. There I gained a love and appreciation for music from eras past, and the warm community created by my extended biological and neighborhood family in a city still struggling to find itself after integration.


What are your research interests?  What excites you about it?

My research interests revolve around the idea of evolvability and adaptability. What makes something more adaptable or sturdy? I first got interested in this topic when I was in undergrad. I, like many others, wanted to save animals from extinction. But a paradox soon emerged. Those animals that are going extinct would often find themselves in zoos, where they would face inbreeding and their offspring would be hurt. But why is it that some species like catfish or carp are resistant to the effects of inbreeding? This question started me on my scientific journey. I would soon find an answer, in the viruses that live within our DNA. These viruses do a lot of good and bad things and may be the answer for everything from the first life forms on earth to healing generational trauma. The beauty of genetics and how it literally and metaphorically interweaves our daily lives and experiences that we have, share, and pass on will never not excite me. Beautiful in simplicity but forever complicated. A paradox once more. My research now, addresses this question but from a different viewpoint. How do these viruses affect the creation of novelty in mimetic butterflies, where one group has half as many of these viruses? Does this limit their ability to evolve? To form groups? To be complex? And how the heck does butterfly DNA know how to build not one but two different life forms (Caterpillar/Butterfly) after it melts itself to jelly in the cocoon?!


What does your family think you do in grad school?

Study butterflies.


How has ADI programming impacted you? 

ADI programming has helped to give me a sense of community and belonging outside of the normal day to day life at Princeton. It's nice to be around other people who look like me and have similar experiences in life. The ADI team has always been welcoming and really caring about my own experiences and that’s something often lacking from departments and grad school.


What advice would you give prospective, incoming, and/or first year underrepresented Princeton graduate students?

Find somewhere within Princeton or the tri-state area that you really feel at home and grounded with people and communities that you identify with. From there, living and functioning within Princeton will be a lot easier. Having a strong base can help shield you from the day to day trials and tribulations of getting a graduate degree and also help to put into perspective some of the problems encountered within graduate school.


What's been most helpful to you in acclimating to Princeton?

Understanding that everyone wants something different from graduate school. Learning how to protect my time and discern what to give my time and effort to.


What activities do you engage in beyond research?

I stream/talk about science on Twitch (chrisysalis). I read, write stories, play video games, bird watch. Learning to practice hoodoo.


What's your side hustle?

I teach/work at the StudioLab on campus.


How would your friends describe you? 

Taurus, earthy, stable, feeling, smiles a lot.


What book, show, podcast, game, song, or movie best reflects your grad school experience?

To Pimp a Butterfly, a Kendrick Lamar album. It chronicles materialism, racism, oppression, and above all else, self-love. On top of that I study mimicry in butterflies where one copies the expression of the other species, essentially how one butterfly pimps another.


What should the ADI community know about you?

I care a lot about Black Radical tradition and manifesting black futures in materials. I'm a big fan of Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney and Huey Newton. Black Academics who didn’t over intellectualize, and made concrete steps towards black liberation.