My research questions focus on evolutionary genetics in plants. My primary interest is in how plant populations respond to selective pressures caused by herbivores, and what factors might help or limit those responses. Insect herbivores can be responsible for a great deal of damage to a plant, and plants have evolved some really creative defenses against them. The specific defenses that I work on are glucosinolates—the same compounds that give that characteristic sharp taste to vegetables like brussel sprouts, cabbage, or horseradish. The plant that I’ve worked on, Boechera stricta, makes several different types of gucosinolates, and many populations have genetic variation for which types individuals make. We’re not entirely sure why this variation has persisted for so long. I’m interested in how different species of herbivores feeding on different parts of the plant exert selection on glucosinolate type, and whether the population is free to evolve in response to this selection, or whether it’s constrained.
How did you get to where you are now in terms of your education and training in science?
When I was an undergrad at Mount Holyoke College, the intro course that I took my first semester focused on plants, which is when I decided that that was what I wanted to research. So that part happened pretty quickly—within one semester I went from not even being sure what I was going to major in, to deciding what I wanted to do with my research career. Fortunately, I was able to get some additional research experience to test out whether this was actually what I wanted to do. As a rising junior, through an Research Experience for Undergraduates program at Kansas State University, I was introduced to the fields of ecological and evolutionary genetics, which combined several fields that I was interested in. I got to spend a summer doing research on sunflowers there, and loved it. I found that using genetics to answer ecological questions let me get more deeply into the mechanisms underlying interactions, something that continues to fascinate me. I continued that interest in my senior honors thesis, and it took me to Duke University for graduate school, where there were a number of faculty doing excellent research in evolutionary genetics. There, I got more training in the evolution side of my work, and in designing and carrying out experiments in the field. As a grad student TA, I realized that I also loved teaching as much as research, which is what’s brought me to working in liberal arts colleges like SMCM, where both types of work are emphasized and valued.
What does your research team currently look like?
At the moment, my team is me and one SMCM student who will be starting with me in the fall. If anyone else is interested, I’d be happy to talk!
What classes will you teach in the fall? Which are you most excited to teach?
In the fall, the only class I’m teaching is Genetics. Which I’m definitely excited about!
At St. Mary’s, the students have an unofficial slogan “Keep St. Mary’s Weird.” Do you have any endearing quirks that fit with this motto?
I have an identical twin sister. When she comes to visit, she enjoys sitting in the library and seeing how many people think she’s me. So, for a week or two of the year, if I don’t seem to recognize you, don’t be offended. It’s probably not actually me! We’ve also been part of a twins study since we were babies, so in class I always like to talk about how twin studies are used to learn about genetics, and the experiments that we were a part of.
How will your research in Maryland differ from the research you did on B. stricta in western North America?
At the moment, I don’t have any plans to continue my research in Idaho, so my work is definitely going to change. This coming year, I’m planning on doing experiments with plants in growth chambers or the greenhouse, using B. stricta and/or Arabidopsis thaliana. These controlled conditions are great for answering some questions, but ultimately I’m interested in looking at what’s happening in natural populations, since that’s where evolution is actually occuring. So this year I’m also going to be working on finding a new study system that grows in this area, so that I can work outside without having to fly across the country.
Which chemical defense do you find the most interesting and why?
I’ve worked on glucosinolates for a long time, so I do really like them and find them very interesting from a research perspective. Another defense that I think is really interesting but I’m very glad I don’t work with is furanocoumarins; they bind to DNA in skin cells and then activate in the presence of UV light, causing nasty rashes or blisters. A much more benign defense that I like is tannins, which are found in tea, coffee, or unripe fruits, and are responsible for giving you that dry-mouth feel—that’s because they’re binding to your salivary proteins. Sorry, that’s not just one answer—I have a hard time picking a favorite!