A question & answer session to get to know the 2020 GG Scholar Emma Vtipil, 1st year graduate student in the Plant Biology Program. She is a member of the Sheth Lab.

What aspect of genetics and/or genomics most interests you?

I am most interested in population genetics and evolutionary genetics. My research interests revolve around evolutionary ecology and understanding how plants are rapidly evolving in response to climate change, so I am excited to bring a population genetics approach to my questions. I am really curious about the capacity of populations to undergo evolutionary rescue in the face of environmental change, and I think an important aspect of this question is understanding underlying genetic diversity and how this varies across populations.

What (or Who) influenced you to go into your field of study?

I’ve always known I wanted to be a scientist because I knew I never wanted to stop learning. I wanted to be a plant biologist because I grew up gardening with my dad, who instilled in me a love of plants. When I had to decide what to major in for undergrad, I wanted to study something where I could make a difference in the environment, so I majored in both plant biology and environmental sciences. Meeting my current advisor, Dr. Seema Sheth, during my undergraduate degree, was a big influence because she introduced me to the field of evolutionary ecology, which perfectly combined my interests in plants and environmental change by studying how plants respond to climate change through evolutionary mechanisms. I am so thankful for her guidance and mentorship, and loved learning more about evolutionary ecology over the course of my master’s degree.

Who or what do you hope benefits from your research?

Through my research, I hope that we as a society have a better knowledge of not only the impacts of climate change on species’ trajectories, but also how natural populations are responding to climate change. With this understanding, I want to improve our ability to conserve species threatened by environmental change by incorporating their capacity to rapidly evolve into our management decisions. I hope that not only will the plants I study benefit from my research, but also people as we work to protect our planet and its diversity.

How can your research be used to inform decision makers (e.g. policy makers, resource managers, health practitioners, K12 educators, etc etc)?

My research will help policy makers and people making conservation decisions understand the vulnerability of plant populations to climate change. Knowing whether or not a species can “rescue” itself via rapid evolution has important implications for its conservation and resilience, and I hope that this knowledge will inform resource managers when deciding how to focus energy and efforts for conservation.

What do you think is the most pressing issue or problem in your field of study?

I think one of the biggest challenges in my field right now is understanding and predicting how climate change will impact species’ trajectories. There are so many factors that influence how species and populations will respond to changing environmental conditions and their capacity to evolve, from biotic influences to genetic constraints. Incorporating all of these important factors impacting population persistence and deciding which to study can be tricky.

How do you expect the GG Scholars program to impact your work?

I think there are many ways the GG Scholars program will impact my work, one of which is by providing me with genetics skills I can incorporate into my research. Through the lab rotations, I have had the opportunity to learn different molecular genetics and genomics techniques that I would not have learned otherwise. In addition, the opportunity to interact with so many amazing students has been really influential and created a sense of community. I feel like I’ve already benefited from the survey course a lot, and have learned so much about what kinds of genetic tools to use to answer the questions I am interested in.

How would you describe your research interests to a 3rd grader?

Climate change is causing rising temperatures and increased droughts in parts of the world. I study how climate change affects plants. Unlike animals, individual plants are not able to move and may need to evolve (change in place) in order to survive. I ask questions about how plant populations are changing over time to cope with these environmental changes, so that we can understand how species will be impacted by climate change.

What’s your dream job?

My dream job would be to work somewhere where I get to do both hands-on lab work and some field work. I always want to be learning more, and I want my work to have a meaningful impact on the environment. Ideally I would work somewhere where I can make a difference in the issues related to climate change and plants, whether that is agricultural or conservation related. I know wherever I am I’d love to work with plants and ecology!