Spotlight on Science: Training the Next Generation

As the Principal Investigator of the Garden’s Conservation Genetics Lab, Christy Edwards already has plenty on her plate. But equally important to Edwards is her work with graduate students. To her, it’s essential because despite the efforts of plant scientists, we still know relatively little about many plant species, and many are still undiscovered. At the same time, news reports show that a huge number of plant species are in danger of extinction.

“It is important to me that we train the next generation of scientists who will work to understand biodiversity, discover new species, and help guide efforts to improve the conservation outlook and prevent extinctions for many imperiled species.”

Dr. Christy Edwards, Principal Investigator at the Garden’s Conservation Genetics Lab

The following are a few representatives of the next generation Edwards is training the Garden’s Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development lab. 

Alex Linan

University: Recently graduated from Saint Louis University with PhD, now doing post-doc work at the Garden

Research: It’s not every day that a student re-discovers a species previously thought to be extinct, but one day during his PhD research at the Missouri Botanical Garden, Alex Linan did just that. Using genomic analyses, Linan and Edwards guided Garden collaborator Jean-Claude Sevathian to a location in Mauritius where they thought a species of ebony was in fruit. It had been thought that the last known individual of D. angulata died in 2000, but the genomic analyses was right. Sevathian sent a picture of the plant in fruit. “I thought this is it, we got it,” Linan recalls. 

It was a definite high point in his study on ebonies, which he started as a master’s student. Linan, originally from St. Louis, was impressed by Edwards’ lab technology and approached her about opportunities to do research with her. She pointed him to a project funded by the Global Ebony Assessment studying rare endangered ebony endemic to the Mascarene Islands, volcanic islands off the coast of Madagascar that include Mauritius. He started with a master’s, researching where the plants originated. He decided to dive deeper and switched to a PhD program, looking into species boundaries and determining whether hybridization occurs between species, which impact how we manage their conservation. His final chapter dealt directly with conserving genetic diversity of endangered ebonies in Mauritius where less than two percent of native forests remain on the island. As he’s moved into postDoc work, he’s now studying community assembly of Andean forests in the Madidi project. He’s also applied for grant funding to do propagation and reintroductions of Mascarene ebonies. 

Most important lesson he’s learned at the Garden: How much we don’t know about so many things. “When I was working with this group, I assumed we would have known certain things, but we still don’t even know some very basic aspect of these plants like what pollinates them.”

What’s Next: Linan would like to find a permanent position at the Garden continuing research in rare and poorly known plant groups that are of conservation concern. 

Rachel Lyman

University: Washington University 

Research: Rachel Lynman’s PhD research was inspired by not one, but two, Garden scientists. Edwards and Matthew Albrecht introduced her to the Central Tennessee Basin, where she studies six plant species native to the region. All six are rare, threatened, or endangered. The research appealed to her because she’s interested in conservation, specifically in understanding the origin of species and how that might inform decisions about conservation efforts. The area in Tennessee was ideal because it’s nearby, allowing her to make five field trips there so far. It also contains a high concentration of rare species. Working for the Garden is a good fit, she said, because if she doesn’t know something, there is always someone to ask. Like when she found out one of the species she was studying also had a small population in Virginia, and within five minutes Aaron Floden was able to put her in touch with someone who had all the information she needed to know. 

Favorite moment at the Garden: “Any time I’m in the field and find what I’m looking for immediately,” she says, noting that because she works with rare species, she can have a whole season when she doesn’t find any.

What’s next: She would like to pursue applied research and work for a botanical garden, zoo, or other similar research institutions. 

Serena Isabel Acha

University: University of Missouri St. Louis

Research: Serena Acha first started began field work in her native Bolivia as an undergraduate at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres. She worked with the Madidi Project, a multi-institutional research effort led by the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Bolivian National Herbarium, and continued that work for a year after graduation. She then applied to graduate school at UMSL, with plans to work with the Garden to answer lingering questions from a research project on passion flowers, focusing on a specific group that occurs in the Tropics. Researchers had tried to use morphology to determine how this group was distinguishable from others in the genus but were unsuccessful. Acha found success using genomics. She extracted DNA from more than 900 plant specimens. From that, she was able to definitively determine how many species were in the group, how they were related, and where they originated from. She’s also looking to take that work farther to translate all the genomic data into an easy-to-access tool people can use to identify plants in this specific group. Much of her work was made possible by the Garden’s herbarium, one of the largest in the world, where she was able to gather samples hundreds of passion flowers, some from 100-year-old specimens. 

Most important lesson she’s learned at the Garden: “It’s OK to ask for help. Talking to people is important. Solo research is not as productive as collaboration.”  

What’s next: Acha is considering pursuing a post doctorate doing more research in another lab or going into education. She’d like to become part of a societal change addressing climate change, pushing society to more sustainable practices.  

Brock Mashburn

University: University of Missouri St. Louis, Washington University

Research: When the Garden’s horticulture staff took its first trip to Mauritius, Brock Mashburn was thrilled to go. He’d been to exotic locations before through an internship on tropical agriculture development that took him to Thailand and Kenya where he developed an interest in conservation. He continued to hone that interest through the Garden trip to Mauritius and later Madagascar, where he worked on plant propagation and seed collection. He decided to make it a career. He started working on his master’s degree while remaining on the horticulture staff, and eventually left horticulture to pursue a PhD full time. He hasn’t narrowed down his exact focus yet, but he knows his PhD will be in conservation genetics and biogeography. Likely, some part of it will involve his conservation genetics research on hibiscus of Mascarene Islands, which he’s conducted in conjunction with the Horticulture department and Edwards’ lab. The Garden’s expansive focus on worldwide conservation like the Horticulture Department’s rare plant propagation achievements and the Garden’s Africa and Madagascar program, are a big draw for Mashburn, who lived in West Africa for 10 years growing up. The wealth of knowledge and willingness of scientists to help students make it an ideal place to pursue PhD research, too.

Favorite moment at the Garden:  Travelling to Mauritius and collecting every known species of hibiscus that occur there. “It was a really nice accomplishment but also a sign of how few of those individuals are left of those species that we could collect every individual.”

What’s next: He would love to join the Garden’s Africa and Madagascar team, work for a conservation NGO, or pursue a career in academia.  

Brigette Williams

University: Saint Louis University

Research: When Brigette Williams’ advisor at Saint Louis University told her about a new fellowship offered through SLU and the Garden, she knew she had to apply. The Needleman Fellowship is focused on plant conservation genetics, making it a perfect fit for Williams, who is studying how species lacking genetic diversity respond to environmental changes. Specifically, she’s looking at that relationship in clones and self-fertilizing plants. Her goal is to understand if populations of those species lack genetic diversity, are at risk of extinction, and if the epigenome, a system that produces various traits, provides another layer of biodiversity that should be considered in conservation management. Her research encompasses three projects. The first is looking at grapevines, using a vineyard population of a single clone replicate, exposed to different conditions. She’s found those conditions significantly affect epigenomic variation. Her next project continues that work, now looking at multiple clones in different places and times. She’s studying samples of Ziziphus celata, a species restricted to a narrow area in Central Florida, from the wild and replanted elsewhere to see whether the epigenome of a single clone varies by the location its planted. Finally, she’s collected seeds from wild populations of leavenworthia and brought them back to the Garden for greenhouse experiments, like exposing them to drought or well-water conditions. She’s measuring 25 different characteristics to determine how epigenomes vary between populations, within species, and between species. 

Most important lesson: “If you want to do something, there’s always a way to get it done.” 

What’s Next: She would like to pursue a postDoc continuing her research into species of conservation concern, focusing on those rare endangered plants have no remaining genetic diversity.

All of the students agreed that Edwards is an excellent supporter and advisor, who is always willing to work with students to find solutions and push them to do all they are capable of. 

“She’s awesome,” Williams says. “If you come to her and you have an exciting idea, she’s willing to do it. She can recognize good ideas and she can hit the ground running with you.”

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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