Research

The central goal of my research is to examine biogeographic patterns, as well as ecologically and economically important plant traits using phylogeography and comparative multi-omics. Biogeographic distributions are critical for understanding past, present, and future biodiversity. They work in tandem with evolutionary, ecological, and geological processes, resulting in the variation we observe. In particular am interested in the continuum from continental-scale biogeography of species to population-level divergence and trait variation. My research program integrates three main components: 1) examining the historical biogeography of plants that have a disjunct geographic distribution between western North America and the Great Lakes region, 2) investigating the population genetics underlying the same disjunct pattern, and 3) assessing variation of ecologically and economically important plant traits across the same disjunct range. I draw on my research experience in plant systematics, biogeography,
comparative genomics and transcriptomics, and bioinformatics to answer these integrated evolutionary questions.

I am a USDA-NIFA Postdoctoral Fellow at Penn State University researching Vaccinium membranaceum Douglas ex Torr. (Ericaceae, thinleaf huckleberry) disjunct biogeography and regulation of secondary metabolites. The berry of V. membranaceum is well-known for its flavor profile and has been economically important since its establishment as a forestry industry in the United States in the 1930s. However, limited domestication success increases pressure on natural populations and understanding patterns of secondary metabolite regulation in the field will assist in targeted management. I am investigating three central aims: 1) measure secondary metabolite production and gene expression in thinleaf huckleberry leaves using controlled treatments of light intensity, 2) compare expression of flavonoid pathway genes and secondary metabolite content of berries between low and high elevation populations across a latitudinal gradient, and 3) examine how evolutionary history influences patterns of secondary metabolite production in berries across the geographic range. This addresses regulation of secondary metabolites in a controlled environment and in the field across geographic space, and assesses whether this trait is constrained by evolutionary history.

My previous postdoctoral research focused on the carnivorous sundew genus, Drosera (Droseraceae, Caryophyllales). I am taking a comparative transcriptomics and comparative genomics approach to understand the evolution and expression of carnivory in Drosera capensis L.. I have designed and conducted time-course treatment experiments in trap tissue. I am combining this differential expression transcriptomic data with available genomic data to identify putative carnivory genes in Drosera and look at gene family evolution and patterns of selection across multiple carnivorous lineages within the Caryophyllales and across angiosperms. I am interested in the broad question of how genome evolution (i.e. polyploidy, gene birth/loss) has played a role in the evolution of carnivory in sundews and the homology of “carnivory genes” across carnivorous plants. For more information, please visit Dr. Tanya Renner’s lab website.

My research in genome evolution and transcriptomic regulation of plant traits developed from a desire to take the broad patterns of trait evolution across species that I addressed in my training as a plant systematist, and delve into underlying genetic and genomic mechanisms of trait expression and evolution.

I received my Ph.D. in Botany from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I honed my passion for plant systematics. I worked on a floristic project that leveraged the molecular phylogeny of the Wisconsin flora to study patterns of biodiversity. I also researched the evolution of the staminal lever mechanism in the sage genus, Salvia (Lamiaceae, Lamiales). This work was preceded by undergraduate research at Oberlin College on the evolution of gypsum endemism in the four o’clock family, Nyctaginaceae, in the Caryophyllales. For more information about these projects, please visit Dr. Kenneth J. Sytsma’s lab website, and Dr. Michael J. Moore’s lab website, respectively.

My Ph.D. research focused on disjunct biogeography, the subject that brings me great joy, excitement, and sparks the questions that keep me up at night. For my dissertation, I studied three case studies of a repeated disjunct pattern in North America: Rubus parviflorus (thimbleberry, Rosaceae), Aconitum columbianum (monkshood, Ranunculaceae), and Oplopanax horridus (devil’s club, Araliaceae). Each of these plants exhibits a disjunct distribution between western North American and the Great Lakes region. For all of the plants of this distribution, I want to answer biogeographic questions that address our fundamental understanding of biodiversity: how and when did taxa become disjunct, what parallels are there (if any) among taxa, and do the distribution and ecological contexts at each locality help explain variation in taxa? I want to answer these questions through a phylogeographic lens and combine these data with studies of local adaptation and speciation. My postdoctoral fellowship allows me to continue this research.