Evolution & Ecology Activities at the 2016 SACNAS National Conference: STEM Diversity & Public Understanding

This post is written by Tracy Heath, Corrie Moreau, Alexa Warwick, and Felipe Zapata

The 2016 National Conference of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science was held last week in Long Beach, CA. This conference focuses on motivating, inspiring, and providing resources to underrepresented minorities pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The evolution and ecology activities sponsored by the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action and the Society for Systematic Biologists (SSB) were immensely successful. Four different events took place during the three-day conference: (1) field trips, (2) conversations with scientists, (3) a scientific symposium, and (4) the movie night. These events were organized by Alexa Warwick from the BEACON Center in collaboration with three members of the SSB council: Tracy Heath, Corrie Moreau, and Felipe Zapata.

Field Trips!

Neftali Camacho, collections manager of herpetology at the Natural History Museum of LA County shows SACNAS attendees preserved specimens in a behind-the-scenes tour of the herpetology collections. (Photo by C.S. Moreau)

Two separate field trips were organized to expose students to important resources for conserving, preserving, and understanding biological diversity. The first trip brought 25 participants to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM), led by Alexa Warwick from the BEACON Center and Corrie Moreau and Shauna Price from the Field Museum of Natural History. NHM is the largest natural history museum in the western United States, housing over 35 million specimens. Several of the young scientists commented that this was their first time ever at a natural history museum! During the trip the participants had behind-the-scenes tours of the collections housed at the NHM and heard about the science conducted by resident and visiting scholars. In particular, they were shown the herpetology collections by collections manager Neftali Camacho and toured the entomology collections with assistant collections manager Emily Hartop. The organization of this field trip was made possible by support from herpetology curator, Dr. Greg Pauly. After the tours, participants also had time to browse the fantastic public exhibits at the museum. 

A tour of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden with horticulturist Ashlee Armstrong. (Photo by T. Heath)

A tour of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden with horticulturist Ashlee Armstrong. (Photo by T. Heath)

The second field trip was to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which is the largest botanic garden dedicated to the conservation and study of California native plants and it houses the 10th largest herbarium in the United States of America. Our tour of the RSABG would not have been possible without the generous help of Dr. Lucinda McDade, Executive Director & Director of Research at the gardens. On this trip, Tracy Heath (Iowa State University) and Felipe Zapata (UCLA), brought 24 Sacnistas (SACNAS meeting attendees) to RSABG. The trip started with a welcome message by Dr. McDade and a quick overview of the visit for the rest of the day. Next, Dr. Naomi Fraga, Director of Conservation Programs, gave an exciting talk on the research and conservation activities going on at RSABG and shared her experience on becoming a researcher in a natural history collection. During her talk, Dr. Fraga also highlighted the multiple internship and volunteer opportunities available for students interested in plant ecology, evolution, systematics and conservation. The field trip continued with a tour of the Seeds Conservation Program, the Nursery Program (for restoration programs and the living collection), and the Grow Native Nursery. Several staff members, including technicians, volunteers and interns led these tours through different laboratories and greenhouses. Before lunch, horticulturist Ashlee Armstrong walked us through the garden grounds where she explained the different sections of the garden and talked about the different types of plants we were encountering. After lunch Mare Nazaire, Herbarium Collections Manager, took students to the herbarium where she explained the critical role of herbarium collection on biological research, and showed us some amazing specimens in mint condition such as one plant collected during Captain Cook’s trip in the 1700s. Loraine Washburn, Lab Manager and Conservation Scientist, showed us the molecular and anatomical lab facilities and described the exciting research that students and research staff are conducting in plant evolution, systematics and conservation. Irene Holiman, Library Specialist, led a tour of the library and archives where important and unique books are stored and available for researchers and the general public. Thanks to Dr. McDade and the staff at RSABG for an inspiring visit to one of the best Botanical Gardens in the country!

Conversations with Ecologists and Evolutionary Biologists

University of New Mexico undergraduate Ally Weidner learns about summer research opportunities at the University of Kansas from Dr. Rob Moyle. (Photo by T. Heath)

University of New Mexico undergraduate Ally Weidner learns about summer research opportunities at the University of Kansas from Dr. Rob Moyle. (Photo by T. Heath)

A signature event at SACNAS is the “Conversations with Scientists” program during which students have the opportunity to meet mentors in their area of interest in a small group setting. We had a great turnout for the event this year with a variety of fields within Ecology/Evolution represented.


Scientific Symposium: (Day and) Night at the Museum: Exploring Research in Ecology and Evolution behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums

The speakers and organizers: Tracy Heath, Seema Sheth, Andreas Chavez, Felipe Zapata, Corrie Moreau, Scott Edwards, Lauren Esposito, and Alexa Warwick. (Photo by C. Welch)

The speakers and organizers: Tracy Heath, Seema Sheth, Andreas Chavez, Felipe Zapata, Corrie Moreau, Scott Edwards, Lauren Esposito, and Alexa Warwick. (Photo by C. Welch)

In an earlier post, we described the motivation and the goals of this symposium. The symposium was very successful and we had over 50 attendees. Dr. Corrie Moreau (one of the co-organizers of the symposium) started the session with a brief description of the critical importance of natural history collections in ecology and evolution research followed by a talk on her personal path to becoming a museum researcher. Dr. Moreau described briefly two research projects going on in her lab, one on ant genomes and how in combination with museum collections these data have shed light on genome evolution, and one on ant micro biomes (microorganisms living inside ants) and how these data provide novel ways to study functional diversity. Building on his personal admixed background as a Chicano-Japanese American, Dr. Andreas Chavez shared his passion for studying the role of admixture in evolution and how hybrid zones in squirrels are excellent opportunities to study population divergence, natural selection and gene flow. In his talk, Dr. Chavez highlighted how animal skins housed in museum collections have been fundamental on his research program. Dr. Seema Sheth described how specimens available as herbarium collections are fundamental to answers questions she had developed since very early on her career. Dr. Sheth described how information on occurrence data can be used to study geographic ranges and ecological niches in rare versus widespread species, and how rates of niche evolution might relate to rates of phenotypic evolution. Dr. Lauren Esposito arrived straight from doing field work in the Bahamas to the symposium to share her story on becoming a researcher in a museum and integrating research with conservation programs. The last talk by Dr. Scott Edwards described the myriad ways that museum collections have permitted him and his students to explore the evolution of birds from biogeography to population genetics to the spread of zoonotic diseases.  

Corrie Moreau shares her personal journey as a scientist and research. (Photo by A. Warwick)

Students gathered around all of the speakers after the symposium! (Photo by F. Zapata)

Students gathered around all of the speakers after the symposium! (Photo by F. Zapata)

At the end of the symposium many attendees stayed and asked all the speakers multiple questions about their research and careers paths. It was an exciting symposium highlighting how important research collections are in advancing our knowledge of the diversity of life.


Movie Night!

The final Ecology/Evolution sponsored event at SACNAS was movie night. We showed five short films and one documentary to highlight research in Ecology/Evolution and the environmental and societal issues that such research can address. The 20+ attendees represented a wide range of fields from engineering to marine biology. Alexa Warwick organized and emceed the films and Noelle Beckman from SESYNC helped transition between the films. First we showed an HHMI film titled Got Lactase? The Co-evolution of Genes and Culture where scientists used genetics, anthropology, and chemistry to trace the evolution of lactase persistence in adult populations. Next was our featured documentary by Angela Sun, Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This film brings attention to the huge shift in our use of single-use plastics and the impact they are having on the environment and human health. The third film, Life of Every Color and Kind, was created by the Florida State University grad/undergrad group, ECOmotion Studios.This animated film was inspired by the classic 1966 paper by Dr. Robert Paine describing a rocky intertidal ecosystem in Washington State. The fourth film, Rules for the Black Birdwatcher, was actually a last minute addition to movie night after Ari Daniel mentioned it during the SACNAS plenary lunch on Friday. This short film features Dr. J. Drew Lanham, a writer, birder, hunter, and naturalist at Clemson University who considers “conserving birds and their habitat a moral mission that needs the broadest and most diverse audience possible to be successful.” Next we showed Conservation Bridge’s Biomimicry film, which provides clear examples of how humans have used nature’s best ideas to solve our own problems. The film also describes a novel conservation framework in which companies give back to nature by providing funding to the species/habitat that inspired their ideas. We concluded movie night with Pygids, a film featuring PhD student Tyler Corey from University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his arachnid study group, the amblypygi. This film was the 2016 winner of the annual Evolution Film Festival, and it was once again a big hit at SACNAS with its very catchy song! Overall, attendees thought the films were excellent and many reported that 80-100% of the content in each of the films was new to them. We highly recommend checking out these six films if you weren’t able to join us at movie night!

Looking to SACNAS 2017!

Next year, the SACNAS National Conference will be held in Salt Lake City, Utah October 19-21, 2017. The BEACON Center will continue to spearhead the organization of ecology/evolution activities with funding from SSB. If you have ideas for a symposium or field trip or questions about SACNAS activities, please contact Alexa Warwick, the BEACON Center’s Education and Outreach Postdoctoral Fellow. The SACNAS conference is inclusive and open to anyone who supports increasing diversity in science. We hope to see you in Salt Lake City!

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