University of Pittsburgh, Graduate Student
Plants, ecology, evolution, and chemistry
Hi! My name is Cassie Majetic, and I am currently a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, in the Ecology and Evolution graduate program in the Biological Sciences department. Unlike many botanists, my interest in plants, botany, and science came in a rather roundabout way. I was always fascinated with nature, but in a more active, playful way - some of my earliest memories are of fishing trips with my father and grandfather and camping trips with my mother and our Girl Scout troops over the years. To me, plants were, for a very long time, just a part of the background, a set of organisms that were an important feature of the landscape but not much more. Even science itself was just a school subject that I worked hard to excel in simply to improve my grades – my goal in life for a very long time was to be a writer or a book editor, as I loved to read, write, and analyze.
Hesperis matronalis – my study species!
However, my attitude changed drastically when I entered high school. I found myself taught biology and chemistry by two teachers who were passionate about science and its impacts on daily life. Lab work became something I greatly looked forward to in both subjects. Spurred by this, I entered college to study environmental science. On my first experience doing field work, sampling fish in a stream near the college, I managed to get myself wet and shocked myself (mildly) with the electrofishing equipment! Despite this early experience, I loved doing field work in my college labs. I thought environmental science was the perfect fit for me. I planned to join the EPA or work on a Haz-Mat team after college. But then, my advisor learned I was doing better in my organic chemistry class than in my environmental policy writing class. He suggested I declare my major as biology instead – I’d be able to take as many of the environmental lab science courses as I wanted and they would count toward my biology degree as they were cross-registered, and I wouldn’t have to take the policy classes that I didn’t really like. I agreed, and it was the perfect fit for me.
While I spent most of my time in my undergrad working in aquatic systems, with insects and fish, when the time came to do my senior thesis project, I chose to work with plants. I had taken a fascinating plant physiology class and I was starting to think about working with plants more closely. In particular, I was intrigued by their chemistry - they could defend themselves, could attract insects to ensure reproduction, could create these intricate interactions with other organisms. Ecology and evolution continued to fascinate me as well, and when I realized that you could actually do field and experimental work in these subjects, I knew that this was where I wanted for focus my future research.
I spend lots of time studying potential pollinators, like the two pictured here.
After graduation, I started my current Ph.D. work in Pittsburgh. I work in the lab of Dr. Tia-Lynn Ashman, collaborating with Dr. Robert Raguso, currently at Cornell University. My dissertation focuses on the potential evolutionary and ecological roles of floral color and floral scent in Hesperis matronalis, an introduced biennial and member of the Brassicaceae family. We are interested in understanding the ways in which floral color and floral scent associate and interact to influence the pollination ecology of this species. In particular, my current work attempts to assess whether biochemistry, environment, genetics, or phenotypic plasticity might affect floral scent profiles in Hesperis, and whether floral scent or color are associated with changes in pollinator behavior or female fitness. This latter question, particularly in regards to floral scent, is one that has yet to be completely answered by research. I was thrilled to be able to present some of this work during the 2007 Botany conference in Chicago, which I attended thanks to a travel grant from the Phytochemical section of the BSA. My work attempts to combine plant evolutionary ecology and chemical ecology, lab work and field work, a fun approach that allows me to learn and apply a variety of techniques. I feel like I’m always learning something new, which I love. I hope to continue this approach when I complete my degree.
My field work includes lots of different types of manipulations and observations.
Over my time at Pitt, I’ve also developed an avid interest in education. My graduate work has been supported by teaching at the university and two years of participation in an NSF GK-12 program (in which I worked with K-3 students, teachers, other grad students, and professors on science curriculum rethinking and development in the Pittsburgh public school district). While the two opportunities were vastly different, I learned that I loved being an educator. Whether kindergarteners, teachers, or college students, I enjoyed instructing, encouraging, and teaching something new. In particular, I relish all of my opportunities to teach about plants - I love the look that people get when they realize how interesting and how complex plants are, not at all just a part of the background as I once thought. I look forward to continuing my teaching as a major part of my career.
While my journey into a career in botany was not as direct and straightforward as that of some, I’m thrilled to be here. Plants are fascinating organisms and we have so much yet to learn from them.