PhD Student, Cornell University
In 2004, I decided it was finally time to return to the University of Colorado, finish the Biology degree I started in 1993, and go on to become the botanist I had planned to be. The only plant class being offered my first semester back in school was Plant Systematics. I had never heard the word “systematics” before. I thought maybe the course would have something to do with plant “systems” or plant physiology. I walked into that class and knew immediately that, by accident, I had stumbled upon exactly what I had been looking for all along. I wanted to know plants, to know their names, to know how to identify them in the field, and to know how they were all related to each other. I wanted to be part of this great effort to reconstruct the evolutionary histories of plants and to use these histories to answer questions about how species come into being, how they interact with other species, and how they change.
Even though I was already thinking of myself as a systematist, I decided I needed to explore further, to round out my experience in science, and get training in ecology, and so I participated in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the University of Colorado Mountain Research Station. I spent the summer of 2005 conducting research on the effects of nitrogen deposition on alpine plant species composition and soil nutrient cycling at Niwot Ridge, Colorado. My work was part of a larger, ongoing project in alpine ecosystem science and often involved working with teams of researchers from across the country and abroad, but I was responsible for planning and conducting my own research for my own small piece of the project. It was most enjoyable learning to identify the plants growing in the Colorado alpine, and I was amazed to learn that 20 to 30 species of plants are present in any square meter of tundra at the field site. My interest in plant chemistry was sparked by researchers from the University of California at Irvine who were studying tundra plants that have the ability to change their preferred form of nitrogen uptake depending on the preference of their nearest neighbors. During pauses in my own research, I was able to help the California researchers set up their study plots and learn more about their work.
At the end of August, my REU advisor invited me to travel with him to help complete a project he had been conducting with a group of alpine ecologists, hydrologists, and biogeochemists in Slovakia. The work being done there was complimentary to the work being done at Niwot Ridge, and was useful comparatively because plant species on the Slovak tundra are similar to species on the Colorado tundra, but anthropogenic nitrogen deposition is much higher in Slovakia than in Colorado. We worked together to collect soil-cores and to complete a massive clip harvest of above-ground vegetation in all the test plots at the research site in the Tatra Mountains. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in an important international collaboration to measure the effects of industry and agriculture on sensitive ecosystems. Such collaborations offer the promise of being able to solve problems rapidly and on a global scale. I believe the importance of international collaboration will only continue to grow in all fields of science, and that my experience in Slovakia will help me to contribute to, organize, or even lead large, collaborative, cross-cultural projects in the future. I consider myself well-prepared to build international ties.
I valued my experiences in ecology, but wanted to pursue my interests in plant systematics and evolution, so it was with great enthusiasm that I joined a plant systematics lab in the fall of 2005 after returning from Slovakia. I worked with a dedicated team of Masters and Ph.D. students who were carrying out various projects on the systematics and population genetics of flowering and non-flowering plants. My advisor specialized in pteridophytes, so I assisted him with the phylogenetic analyses of several Hawaiian fern species in order, ultimately, to answer questions about fern biogeography and mechanisms of long-distance spore dispersal. I gained skills in lab and analytical techniques and was introduced to the literature on fern systematics and Hawaiian biogeography. Again, our work was collaborative and involved a co-PI at another college, her undergraduate assistant, and many other scientists who donated specimens or helped to identify species. I had the privilege of presenting a piece of this work on behalf of my lab at the annual Botany conference in Chico, California, in August, 2006.
My work in fern systematics convinced me that I wanted to pursue my own career in plant systematics. I applied and was accepted to a Ph. D. program in Plant Biology, in the L.H. Bailey Hortorium, at Cornell University in 2006. Once at Cornell, I was given considerable freedom to develop my own project and research plan and this has been both challenging and rewarding. I knew I wanted to work on a group of plants that included at least one medicinally-important species. I knew also that I was not so much interested in human use of these medicines but rather in the evolution and potential adaptive significance (to the plants and to plant communities) of these compounds. I became especially interested in the effects of hybridization and genome duplication on plant speciation and chemical diversification. I chose to work on the molecular systematics of the circum-Mediterranean genus Calendula, notable forthe striking polymorphism of its achenes, for the variation in chromosome number across species, for the propensity of the species to hybridize and form polyploids, and for the production of copious amounts of useful secondary products by some (perhaps all) species. The most familiar species is C. officinalis (pot marigold), cultivated for centuries for ornamental and medicinal use. I am planning travel to the Mediterranean to visit herbaria and collect specimens for analysis. This travel has been made possible, in part, by funds granted by the Botanical Society of America. I have established connections with researches in several Mediterranean countries and am looking forward to working with them in order to better understand the complicated history and biology of Calendula. After having participated in international collaborations for other projects, I am enthusiastic about building my own international ties.
My Ph. D. education has also provided (and continues to provide) many opportunities to improve my speaking and teaching skills. I have given talks to faculty and peers either on my own research or on related subjects in my field every semester of my Ph. D. study here at Cornell. So far, I have had the opportunity to lead laboratories in both introductory botany and plant function and growth, and I will TA courses on the taxonomy of cultivated plants, the biology of grasses, and plant physiology next year. These experiences continue to improve my ability to engage an audience and to share ideas, and they deepen my own understanding of the material I am presenting or teaching.
I have benefited greatly from the resources available to me as a graduate student, and from the support and expert guidance of my committee and other faculty both within the Hortorium and throughout the field of Plant Biology. My fellow graduate students also provide endless support and inspiration. I am grateful to have found myself in an environment so conducive to lively academic and scientific exchange that crosses lab, departmental, and even national boundaries.