Research Experiences for Undergraduates in Digitized Collections Data

Contributed by Pam Soltis and Adania Flemming

iDigBio supported five students in its inaugural mini-REU site program during summer, 2017. This program, modeled on NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program, was developed to provide undergraduates with research opportunities using digitized natural history collection data.

Shelly Gaynor (from the University of Central Florida in Orlando), Tierney Shimansky (from the University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC), and UF students Erik Perez, Brandon Ray, and Jennifer Hoeflich conducted independent research in iDigBio-affiliated programs in the Florida Museum of Natural History from May to August.  In addition to their research projects, these students explored the collections of the Florida Museum of Natural History, led by Adania Flemming, and obtained training and experience in presenting their projects both orally and with posters. Shelly presented her work at the annual Botany meeting of the Botanical Society of America, Erik’s work was also presented at Botany, and Tierney will present her work at next summer’s Botany 2018 conference. The following are short descriptions of the students’ projects:

Jennifer Hoeflich worked in the Vertebrate Paleontology collection studying bony fishes from the Late Miocene in Florida, under the guidance of Dr. Bruce MacFadden. She was tasked with identifying fossils, extracting micro-fossils from the matrix, and cataloging the fossils into the museum database which is ultimately imported into the iDigBio portal. In order to identify the fossils, Jennifer first had to familiarize herself with the morphology of the fossils using previously identified specimens from similar sites. An understanding of the fishes’ habitats was not only helpful, but also proved to be a fascinating learning experience for Jennifer.

Brandon Ray worked in the Ichthyology collection with Dr. Larry Page, using genetics to determine the phylogenetic relationships between species of catfish in the genus Glyptothorax from Southeast Asia. Brandon used distributional data obtained via the iDigBio portal to assess the phylogeography of several catfish species to ultimately update the taxonomy of Glyptothorax. Brandon was able to truly experience the ‘feeling of discovery’ from his REU research project that he never before experienced in his rigid and scripted undergraduate class research projects. He thoroughly enjoyed his project and felt that it benefited him professionally.

Shelly Gaynor worked with Drs. Pamela and Douglas Soltis and Ph.D. student and iDigBio RA Blaine Marchant. Her project focused on identifying if ecological niche divergence existed among diploids, triploids, and tetraploids of Galax urceolata. Additionally, they predicted the effects of climate change on the relative distributions of G. urceolata cytotypes. In June, Shelly attended Botany 2017, where she presented a poster on this project and helped as an instructor at a workshop hosted by iDigBio on using digitized herbarium data in research. Shelly really enjoyed learning new computational skills and working on her writing skills.

Tierney Shimansky also worked with Drs. Pamela and Douglas Soltis and Ph.D. student and iDigBio RA Anthony Melton, creating ecological niche models for sixty different plant species from wetlands in and around the Apalachicola River basin. Tierney used data from iDigBio to develop models of current distributions and then projected the models to 2070 using climate change projections. This allowed her to see how the local habitat changed and where suitable habitat for these species might occur in the future, with a special focus on how the rare and endemic species would be affected. Tierney thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to follow her project, from start to finish and observe tangible results at summer’s end.
Erik Perez, working with Drs. Pamela and Douglas Soltis and Ph.D. students Anthony Melton and Youl Kwon, studied niche divergence among species in Rhexia, a genus of angiosperms in Melastomataceae native to the southeastern U.S.  Erik used iDigBio data to develop ecological niche models for Rhexia species and then examined shifts by plotting the niche characteristics on a phylogeny of the genus. Youl presented this work at Botany 2017.

The REU students were toured the research collections at the Florida Museum of Natural History with graduate students. This enabled them to get a broad perspective of research and resources outside of their own lab experiences. According to Tierney, ‘being able to see the different departments and work people were doing at the museum in relation to the digitization project of iDigBio was an incredible experience’. To complete their experience as iDigBio REU students, the undergraduates presented scientific posters and gave oral presentations on their projects at an event hosted by the iDigBio student group and attended by iDigBio and Museum staff and personnel.