Staff & Student News

Beckett Sterner joined the Geology Department in mid-August as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Scientist. His project with Associate Curator Scott Lidgard (Geology) is an interdisciplinary collaboration integrating biology, philosophy of science, and history of science.  The principal goal of Beckett’s project is to analyze “The impact of mathematics on inferring classifications and phylogenies,” over the past 60 years.  Key questions concern when and why statistical methods prove useful for studying the identity, diversity, and evolution of living organisms. Systematic biologists make classifications and phylogenies of organisms and depend on the idea that adding more data will cause their results to converge statistically.  The biological basis for this convergence, however, is contested and varies across inference methods and organisms. Moreover, this theoretical convergence is seldom tested or validated.  Beckett recently completed his doctorate in conceptual Foundations of Science at the University of Chicago, and thus brings a novel introspective to the scientific staff of Collections and Research. The study of statistics as a constraint on research in systematics will open a new, epistemological perspective on individuality as a fundamental problem, especially regarding how to individuate structural elements in classifications or phylogenies and how to individuate characters in an organism. In addition, it will develop research tools for investigating the mathematization of biology and other sciences, an increasingly important problem in the history and philosophy of science.

Dr. Juan Larraín joined The Field Museum as a Postdoctoral Research Scientist from the Universidad de Concepción, Chile.  Juan will be working with Adjunct Curator & Collections Manager Matt von Konrat (Botany) investigating biodiversity studies of the liverwort genus Frullania.  This is an NSF project in collaboration with partners at Duke University.  A brief summary of the project can be found here.

Zoology’s Division of Amphibians and Reptiles is proud to expand its list of young herpetological colleagues.  For the last two years, Joshua Traub, a 2010 Loyola University graduate, expanded his lab, collection, and fieldwork experience with the Division and assisted Research Associate John Murphy on a 2011 field trip to Trinidad and Tobago.  Joshua began his graduate education this August at John Carroll University in Cleveland, OH in the Saporito Lab where he is focusing on aposematism in the dendrobatid poison dart frog, Oophaga pumilio.  Former Division intern Gabriel Hast also departed The Field Museum to begin his first undergraduate year at the University of Kansas, where he has already joined the ranks of enthusiastic herpers led by Curator-in-Charge Dr. Rafe Brown.  Image left:  Joshua Traub during field work in Trinidad and Tobago, 2011. Photograph credit: John C. Murphy, 2011.  Photo right: Gabriel Hast on a field expedition in Indiana. Photograph credit: Alan Resetar, 2010.

Collections & Research Assistant Laura Briscoe (Botany) graduated with a Master’s Degree in the Plant Biology and Conservation Program at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden.  Her thesis consisted of a molecular and morphological systematic study of a small family of leafy liverworts, the Acrobolbaceae.  The thesis was completed under Botany Research Associate Norman Wickett (Conservation Scientist, Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University) as an advisor, with Curator Emeritus John Engel and Adjunct Curator and Collections Manager Matt von Konrat (both Botany) serving on the committee along with Nyree Zerega (Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University).  Laura’s thesis benefited from Field Museum collections as well as fieldwork to both Fiji and Chile, where there are active programs coordinated by the Museum.  The Field Museum remains an important institution for the study of these important and interesting plants; Laura represents a new generation of bryologist, and she is honored to work under the mentorship of John Engel.  Laura’s research has been supported by a variety of programs including Conservation International, the National Science Foundation and the Shaw Fellowship at Chicago Botanic Garden/Northwestern.

Research & Publications

In late August, Adjunct Curator and Collections Manager Ian Glasspool (Geology) co-authored a paper, entitled “Evolutionary stasis of sporopollenin biochemistry revealed by unaltered Pennsylvanian spores,” with colleagues from the UK and the University of Illinois at Chicago and first published online by New Phytologist.  The paper, based on Field Museum specimens, investigates the chemistry of exceptionally preserved (c. 310 million year old) fossils preserved in cave deposits from Kendall County, IL.  The results demonstrate that the biopolymer sporopollenin, here analyzed in lycophyte megaspores, but present in the spore/pollen walls of all land plants, has remained highly conserved across widely-spaced phylogenetic groups and suggests land plant sporopollenin structure has remained stable since embryophytes invaded land.  Image left: CT scan of an exceptionally-preserved megaspore assignable to Rotatisporites sp. from Pennsylvanian age cave deposits in Kendall Co., IL.

Adjunct Curator and Collections ManagerMatt von Konrat and Associate Anders Hagborg (both Botany) were co-authors on 14 papers published over the last couple of weeks.  All 14 papers are part of an international collaborative effort working towards the goal of producing the first-ever world checklist for liverworts and hornworts—this is part of the Early Land Plants Today Project. Liverworts and hornworts, together with mosses belong to a group commonly referred to as bryophytes.  Bryophytes are regarded as very important evolutionary and are important ecological indicators.  A widely accessible list of known plant species is a fundamental requirement for plant conservation and has vast applications.  Matt, Anders and long-standing colleague Prof. Lars Söderström (Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway) spearhead the Early Land Plants Today (ELPT) project.  All 14 papers are open access and can be accessed here.

For more information about the Early Land Plants Today project visit the newly released website.  Matt is deeply grateful to Jessica Sandy, Rob Zschernitzand especially Ben Ludwig (all Department of Technology)who were instrumental in moving the project’s old Google web site on to the Museum’s Drupal-based platform.

Postdoctoral Research Scientist Matthew Davis (Zoology/Fishes)  co-authored the paper “The First Record of a Trans-Oceanic Sister-Group Relationship between Obligate Vertebrate Troglobites,” which was published in the journal PLoS One.  This study indicated that blind goby cavefishes from Madagascar and Australia, which are separated by the Indian Ocean, share a common ancestor and are more closely related to each other than to other gobies.  This work was done in collaboration with Prosanta Chakrabarty (Louisiana State University) and John Sparks (American Museum of Natural History), and has received coverage on the BBC website.

Scientific Program Manager Audrey Aronowsky, Outreach Coordinator Beth Sanzenbacher (both BioSynC), Digital Learning Specialist Johanna Thompson (Education), and Krystal Villanosa (Ph.D. student, Northwestern University) published two papers in the eBook from the 2012, 2nd Global Conference on Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds.  The eBook, entitled Utopia and a Garden Party, is available for free download on the Inter-Disciplinary Press Website here.

The first paper, entitled “Fusing Virtual, Digital and Real-World Experiences for Science Learning and Empowerment,” discusses the unique ways that virtual worlds and digital media, when combined with real-world activities, can create a holistic environment in which youth participants become engaged in the scientific process, learn key concepts, and experience positive affect changes towards science.  The second paper, “Mixing Virtual, Real-World and Digital Communication Elements to Create Successful Global Teams,” discusses how creating virtual global programs that blend digital technologies and real-world activities can mimic a progression of engagement often used to foster real-world teams.  The resulting virtual global team, based on a generative culture of content-creation, allowed members in disparate locations to enter into active, social, and meaningful relationships with science mentors, their environment, and each other.

Adjunct Curator and Collections Manager Robert Lücking (Botany) gave a workshop on phylogenetic and multivariate methods at the Universidad Distrital in Bogota, Colombia in late August. 11 participants attended the two-week workshop that spanned everything from the secrets of correctly aligning DNA sequencing to the calculation of a molecular clock tree, as well as the analysis of ecogeographical data by means of ordination and clustering techniques.  All participants were thesis students partially supervised by Robert and, as part of the event, worked on their thesis data and prepared brief presentations.  During the workshop, Robert had a little extra time to analyze new data on an enigmatic group of lichens growing only on rocks in coastal deserts along the American Pacific coast (California and Baja California: Sonora; northern Chile: Atacama; and the Galapagos Islands).  This group turned out to form a novel subfamily clade within the largest family of lichens, the Graphidaceae, and sheds new light on the evolution of these mainly tropical, epiphytic organisms.  The discovery, made in collaboration with Swedish colleague Anders Tehler from the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet in Stockholm, is an important contribution to the current NSF project on the Graphidaceae that Robert is working on with Associate Curator and Chair Thorsten Lumbsch (Botany).  A molecular clock analysis applied to the data showed that this isolated subfamily, which contains only seven extant species, evolved some 130 million years ago, which correlates well with the presumed age of the Atacama Desert of approximately 150 million years. Thus, these lichens are like living dinosaurs, older than T-Rex and still present.

Curator Gary Feinman and Adjunct Curator Linda Nicholas (both Anthropology) are pleased to announce that the community museum in Santiago Matatlán officially opened in early September, it is now located in a permanent, larger space in a building near the center of the village.  Gary and Linda have been working concertedly for months with people in Mexico to present and check the exhibition texts and to prepare images and maps for the exhibition space.

The museum now includes several rooms with a significant proportion of Field Museum findings/studies/interpretations regarding El Palmillo (Ta Guil Rein in the local Zapotec).  The museum expresses the pride of the local inhabitants in their lives and culture, and also serves to educate the many Matatecos who no longer live in their native village about their rich past.  The museum is distinctive in Oaxaca in its detailed emphasis on the provenience of the pieces displayed and the key significance of archaeological context for interpretation.

Gary and Linda wish to take this opportunity to recognize and thank Connie and Mark Crane and The Field Museum’s Women's Board and Anthropology Alliance for their very generous facilitation of this project.  The museum has received extensive coverage, visit Cronica de Oaxaca, Oaxaca Digital, and Oaxacan Nundua for more details and photos.

Adjunct Curator & Collections Manager Matt von Konrat, Research Associate Matt Greif (both Botany) and Thomas Campbell (Instructor, Northeastern Illinois University) convened a two-day meeting on September 29–30 hosted and supported by the Biodiversity Synthesis Center (BioSynC).  This was the first of two synergistic Biosynthesis meetings relating to the central theme of an integrative systematic study of the liverwort genus Frullania.  The meeting was kindly coordinated by Audrey Aronowsky, Beth Sanzenbacher and Sarah Kim (BioSynC). The project includes novel elements to help accelerate the pace of scientific discovery and reduce the taxonomic impediment. The September meeting, with the majority of participants from universities and Chicago City Colleges from the Chicagoland area, focused on education and outreach.  Significantly, the meeting worked towards the goal of engaging students of partnering institutions to aid in capturing data from collections housed at The Field Museum; thus relieving some of the taxonomic impediment.  A major obstacle to documenting, describing and discovering the Earth’s biodiversity is the fact there is a worldwide shortage of taxonomists.  Taxonomists are charged with identifying species, describing species that are new to science, determining their taxonomic relationships, and make predictions about their classification.  See Matt’s blog here to find out more about the scope of the meeting.  A synopsis of the meeting can also be accessed here, and a lively blog written by Michael Bryson (Roosevelt University) can be accessed here.

There were many exciting outcomes from the Frullania meeting.  Dr. Thomas Campbell announced that the project will be implemented in an introductory biology course including six classes and 144 students.  Dr. Campbell was one of the conveners and early adopters of the project in its pilot phase.  Associate Professor Michael Bryson (Roosevelt University) and his student Kristina Lugo, together with Director Beth Crownover (Education Department) are spearheading a K-12 component.  Dr. Matt Greif (Wilbur Wright College) will continue a service-learning component in one of his courses.  Dr. Greif is co-principal investigator on the National Science Foundation funded project and was also a convener of the meeting.  Dr. Arfon Smith (Director of Citizen Science) and his team at Adler Planetarium are producing a prototype for an online version of the pilot—a particularly exciting phase of the project.  Matt and the participants also plan on publishing detailed information about their novel network and findings in a White Paper later this year.

Fieldwork & Collections

Curator Rüdiger Bieler and Associate Curator Petra Sierwald (both Zoology/Invertebrates) returned in late August from fieldwork in the Bahamas and South Florida.  Rüdiger teamed up with Research Associate Timothy Collins (Florida International University) to sample sessile marine snails around the Bahamian island of Abaco, while Petra explored the mangrove spider fauna for a possible geographic expansion of her prior work in Panama and Florida.  This intensive one-week project in the Bahamas was followed by work in the Florida Keys.  Rüdiger had previously reported invasive Indo-Pacific oysters on “artificial reefs” (deliberately sunken shipwrecks that have been placed offshore to stimulate the scuba diving industry) and wanted to see whether they had also spread to other regions of the Keys.  Petra took a break from exploring terrestrial arthropods and joined Rüdiger (photo) for work on the wreck of the USS Spiegel Grove, a 510ft/160m US Navy dock landing ship that was turned into an artificial reef in 137 ft depth on Dixie Shoal off Key Largo. And, yes, it appears that the invader—a giant foam oyster of the genus Hyotissa—is now established on the artificial reefs of the Upper Keys as well.  The material is currently being prepared for DNA analysis.


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