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February 26th, 2013 by Rachael Martin

Thinking about Trees

This semester I will be blogging about one of my courses, BIOL 254 Molecular and Evolutionary Systematics: Assembling the Tree of Life. This course is an upper level biology course co-taught by my faculty advisor Dr. David Hibbett and my other advisor, Dr. Romina Gazis, a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Hibbett lab. This class is part of the Open Tree of Life project  which Dr. Gazis is working on and Dr. Hibbett is a Principal Investigator (PI) for. This project involves bringing together published phylogenetic trees into one large phylogeny of all life!

This is my second course taught by more than one instructor, and I’ve found that co-teaching has multiple benefits, including an opportunity for Dr. Gazis to gain teaching experience. There are 10 students in the class, so having two instructors enables each student to get a lot of attention. Very few people miss this class; an absence is immediately apparent at our small conference table. Both instructors are always available to meet with students, and often both read and comment on our homework assignments. The class is made up of graduate students from several biology labs, seniors, a junior, and a sophomore. Several of us are from the Hibbett lab, but we also have students interested in other organisms and applications including plants, animal behavior, microbiology, and bioinformatics.

This course has several exciting aspects which make it a LEEP course. The course has an interdisciplinary focus and emphasizes the diverse applications of phylogenetics. This is a broad field requiring knowledge of genetics, evolution, and even math! Phylogenetic trees are used to infer evolutionary relationships among organisms. The Tree of Life Web project is a great site to explore some of these relationships.

The homework assignments complement classroom lectures and focus on hands-on learning. The techniques we are learning will be applied to independent semester long research projects which will be presented at the end of the course. These topics will be elaborated on in future posts.


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