Published: July 31, 2013

Rewriting The Birds Tree of Life

Erica Zahnle, DNA Educator and Researcher, Integrative Research Center


Teaching Systems Biology and Genetics Through Inquiry

Shannon Hackett, Ph.D. is The Richard and Jill Chaifetz Curator and Head, Bird Division of Zoology at The Field Museum.  Shannon’s current research is focused on the Emerging Pathogen Project which studies birds and small mammals and the parasites and pathogens that live in and on them from a genomics and evolutionary perspective.  To learn more about Shannon and her research visit her Field Museum profile. Some other useful sites are The Field Museum’s Division of Birds website and The Field Museum’s Hall of Birds site.  This video can also be found on The Field Museum's Vimeo page. 

"Everything I do or think about in science is systems based--from DNA inside of system of cells, to individual birds as ecosystems of organisms that live in them or on them, to birds as part of larger and more encompassing ecosystems.  Everything in biology is connected to everything else by varying systems." – Dr. Shannon Hackett

Erica Zahnle


I joined the Museum's Exhibitions Department in 2004 to market and travel Field Museum produced science exhibitions worldwide.  The exhibits developed by this institution are incredibly informative and engaging, so much so that one in particular, Gregor Mendel: Planting The Seed Of Genetics, inspired me to go back to school to be on the other side of the exhibit as the scientist.  After taking all the undergraduate courses in biology and chemistry necessary to pursue a masters degree in biology, I was hired as a research assistant in the Pritzker Lab.  In addition, I work as the lead educator for the Rice DNA Discovery Center–a permanent exhibition that helps Museum visitors explore the science behind DNA.  

As a researcher I work on a variety of projects and interact with some of the brightest scientists in the world. I have looked at the genetic diversity of Madagascan cavefish, plumed African birds, and microscopic pathogens.  Right now I am part of The Emerging Pathogens Project, generating sequences for DNA barcoding in bird species.  This entails amplifying the Cytochrome b (Cyt b) gene on the mitochondrial DNA of different taxa of birds.  These barcodes will be useful in identifying correlations of infection between avian hosts and some of their protozoan parasites, Plasmodium and Haemoproteus, which are responsible for avian malaria and are detectable through PCR techniques.

On weekdays I host "Talk to the Scientist Hour" in the DNA Discovery Center, a Q&A session that educates the public about the ongoing research in the Pritzker Lab.  However, the most rewarding part of my job is running the DNA Residency, a program bringing four high school students and two high school biology teachers into the Pritzker Lab for a six-week summer course.  They are trained in genetic techniques, including DNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and DNA sequencing.  Working with teenagers is exhilarating, mentally stimulating, and fun.  I love hearing from them as they are accepted into some of the best universities in the world.

For more information about my job, or the ongoing research and people in the Pritzker Lab, become a fan and check out the notes section of our facebook page-The DNA Discovery Center and Pritzker Lab at the Field Museum.