Research Opportunities: academic year

Swensen Witherup: Research in Biology

Susan Swensen Witherup   Section 2



My research addresses evolutionary questions about a variety of organisms, but focusing on plants and the evolution of plant interactions with other organisms (e.g. bacteria, insects).  Much of the work involves DNA analysis in the lab, including extracting DNA from plants and insects, amplifying genes of interest using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), DNA sequencing, computer-based analysis of data, and phylogeny reconstruction.


I am always open to students who would like to design their own research questions, but most of the time, students choose to work on a project that is part of my research.  If you have a specific project you would like to pursue, please see me and we can work on your idea for a project.  The following are the projects I have already defined for students: 



Current possible projects in my lab address evolutionary questions about the squash family (Cucurbitaceae) and its parasites.  These projects are focused specifically on two genera of tropical cucumbers (Gurania & Psiguria) that have bright red or orange flowers that are parasitized by fruit flies in the genus Blepharoneura.  I am involved in reconstructing the phylogeny of the plant hosts as well as the insect parasites to better understand how these groups diversified.


     * How does the phylogeny of host plants compare to the phylogeny of flies that live on the plants? 

     * Do the currently defined species of plants form distinct groups in DNA-based phylogenies? 

     * What genes will be useful in reconstructing phylogeny in closely-related plant hosts? 


This work is in collaboration with Dr. Marty Condon, a biologist from Cornell College (Iowa) who has studied this system for many years.  If funding is available, there may be opportunities for travel to the tropics for collecting, or to Iowa to meet with collaborators.




 Several projects are available (for credit) that focus on a variety of issues relating to sustainability.  In the past, students have worked on projects involving energy use in our building, a pilot green roof for CNS, and a greenhouse gas inventory for Ithaca College.  If research of this type interests you, please make an appointment to see me and we can discuss possible projects.



Islands comprise less than 5% of the Earth’s land mass, yet, they are estimated to house approximately 20% of all bird, reptile, and plant species on Earth.  Islands represent biodiversity hotspots due to the fact that many island species are endemic (found nowhere else on Earth).  Immigrants to islands, however they arrive, experience a unique evolutionary trajectory, separate from their mainland counterparts, resulting in island endemics. The proportion of such endemics rises with increasing isolation from the mainland, increasing island size and ecosystem complexity.  As an evolutionary biologist, I am intrigued by the capacity of islands to serve as living laboratories to understand evolutionary processes.  because they represent somewhat simplified systems with fewer numbers of species.  As a scientist interested in conservation of biodiversity, islands represent the “front lines” of the extinction crisis.  Because of their high levels of endemism, impacts on island ecosystems have a disproportionately large impact on global biodiversity.  In sum, islands are “where it’s at” if you’re interested in evolutionary biology and biodiversity conservation.  Projects associated with this topic will involve work with plants native to Puerto Rico and smaller associated islands in the Lesser Antilles


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