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Graduate program melds fieldwork and next-generation genomics

January 28, 2013

Graduate program melds fieldwork and next-generation genomics

Beryl Jones has logged long hours extracting DNA samples, pored over publications by STRI scientist Bill Wcislo and posed research questions about the gene expression of bees in Panama

Beryl Jones has logged long hours extracting DNA samples, pored over publications by STRI scientist Bill Wcislo and posed research questions about the gene expression of bees in Panama. Notwithstanding a visit to inland Brazil, the Ph.D. student from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says one element is missing from her early career as an organismal biologist: more fieldwork in the tropics.

Far from the deserts of her native Arizona and the sprawling cornfields of the Midwest, Beryl is in Panama as part of STRI-UI's new Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT). As part of a group of 20 students, Beryl started her tropical semester with a tour of STRI's facilities in Panama and a series of in-the-field lectures by STRI scientists. The course continues with 10 weeks of lab or fieldwork on a specific subject of the students' choice.

Beryl says to fully understand the gene expressions of these socially mobile bees, she needs to see how they behave in the field and respond to experiments. “When I actually get the data at the end, I will be able to fit it into the right context,” she says after a forest tour with STRI scientist Allen Herre on Panama's Barro Colorado Island. “If I get the data and have no idea about their behavior, then it is meaningless… once I can really get in there I will come up with some really great, burning questions.”

Next-generation genomics, which is quickly making gene sequencing faster and cheaper, could underpin many of the advances in tropical biology in coming decades. “There's been a tremendous revolution and incredible growth in the number of genetic tools that are at people's disposal,” says Allen, who specializes in mutualistic relationships in tropical forests.

This program funded by the National Science Foundation, joins a temperate zone leader in genomics and advanced biology with the world's leading tropical research institution. Allen believes STRI's decades of meticulously collected field data will serve as a foundation for a new generation of genomics-driven scientific research. “This program is really about combining two sets of strengths,” he says of this IGERT.

Other IGERT students conduct research on fish, birds, disease dynamics, seed dispersal and marine biology. “This is what we wanted, people who have different research interests,” says Owen McMillan, STRI's dean of Academic Programs. “They overlap in this area (of genomics) and really want to understand how an organism works.”

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