My Summer Evolutionary Ecology Research Experience

Bethany Vazquez Smith, COL ’23, St.Thomas

This summer I was graciously afforded the opportunity to continue research at the Wood Laboratory at Penn. This laboratory studies evolutionary ecology and genetics of species interactions. During the spring, I conducted an independent research project where I investigated the species interactions between symbionts in Medicago. My independent project proposal involved two components, the first of which involved samples from an experiment run last summer that aided in answering how growth rate and resource allocation differed among plants in different treatments. The second component would have served as an addendum to the lab’s large-scale genome-wide association study (GWAS). Both components were intended to complement one another in addition to contributing to the ongoing work of the lab. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the GWAS component was delayed until early May to be run by the lab. Fortunately, the funding from Career Services allowed me to continue my presence in the lab during the summer and see the project through to completion.

Not only was I able to assist in the coordination of this project, but I was able to examine how my own previous project worked along with this research. The synergistic nature of both research projects provided a key source of learning for me. I was able to see firsthand the elements of the scientific method from its very start. The nature of my own project last semester heavily involved analysis, and I was not able to experience starting a project from the ground up. However, my experience this summer allowed me to realize this process and enhance my biological research skills. 

As a research assistant, I assisted in the planting, fertilization, and care of over 2,500 experimental plants. Fortunately, I was able to work with 4 other undergraduates as well as 3 grad students, which allowed for the facilitation of the experimental process as well as the benefit of building strong relationships as we learned from one another. This experience also gave me the opportunity to enhance my leadership skills by training newer members of the lab on certain protocols and lab techniques. In total, I participated in 3 projects: the GWAS project, an independent above-ground data collection project, as well as generating a training dataset for the development of an AI system of identifying root structures. 

My summer experience gave me the ability to contribute to the field of evolutionary biology while learning valuable life lessons. Being in Philly allowed me to explore many more parts of the city I was not able to experience due to the engrossing nature of the academic year. In short, I had an amazing experience in and out of the lab!

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2022 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

By Career Services
Career Services