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Archive for September 2012

UCMP receives $401,833 to develop a program to increase understanding of evolutionary trees

UCMP,  in partnership with the Museum of the Earth, the University of Kansas Natural History Museum, and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, has received a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences: The Tree Room: Teaching and learning about evolutionary relationships

This three-year project will result in a freely accessible online resource for science educators and ISI professionals – The Tree Room. Building on scientific expertise, the learning research, and current project partner efforts, this resource will clarify what evolutionary trees are, how to read and interpret them, how they are built, how they inform research, and their applications relevant to society.  The project will clarify common misconceptions about trees, identify best practices for using trees in exhibits, and provide lessons and tools for teaching about trees.

The Tree Room will become part of the already highly successful Understanding Evolution website and will target K-16 teachers and ISI professionals but will ultimately serve students and the broader public by helping members of the target audience communicate more effectively about evolutionary trees as important scientific tools.

This project will have national impact on three levels by:

  • Increasing the number of K-16 teachers and informal science educators who are prepared to teach about trees and able to clarify student and visitor misconceptions.
  • Increasing the capacity of museums to develop effective exhibit and program components that integrate evolutionary trees by providing access to learning research and best practices gained through case study analysis.
  • Increasing public understanding of evolutionary trees.

Measurable outcomes of the project will include:

  • Improvements in teachers’ understanding of evolutionary trees.
  • Increases in teachers’ confidence in working with trees and associated scientific data, and improved skills in synthesizing and transforming that knowledge for the classroom.
  • Improvements in teachers’ skill and capacity for communicating concepts associated with biological trees in the framework of local, state and national science education standards.
  • Increases in teachers’ ability to explain tree depictions in the popular press or in textbooks that may otherwise result in student misconceptions.
  • Increases in ISI professionals’ use of trees in new exhibit designs.
  • Improved use of trees in ISI exhibits in ways that better reflect the results of the learning research and best practices as established through case studies of tree visualizations in other institutions.
  • Increases in ISI professionals’ confidence in using tree visualizations in museum interpretive activities and in discussing existing tree diagrams with visitors.

Teachers better prepared to incorporate trees into instruction and ISI professionals with a deeper understanding of the role of trees in exhibits will lead to a more scientifically literate public—one that appreciates the central role that evolutionary relationships play in a modern understanding of biology.

Fossil neighbors

Jessie drivingAbout once a month, I drive from Berkeley to Walnut Creek to pick up specimens for my thesis (dead birds for a study of the evolution of development in Aves), which necessitates a pass through the Caldecott Tunnel. Each time, I heave a sigh and try to shore up my patience as traffic before the tunnels slows to a stop. However, this bane has recently metamorphosed into an object of great interest, for it has come to my attention that the construction here is also uncovering of one of Earth’s most alluring treasures: fossils!

The construction workers are burrowing through rocks that are 9 to 16 million years old. Here, the hills have yielded thousands of fossils of all types of organisms, from plants, to vertebrates and invertebrates, to microfossils (very tiny plants and animals). They, in turn, provide clues to the past flora, fauna, and paleoenvironment of the Bay Area. Who knew that such a wealth of fossils could be found so nearby?

This semester, I am fortunate enough to be a Graduate Student Researcher (GSR) in the UC Museum of Paleontology (UCMP), a position funded by the California State Department of Transportation (known locally as Caltrans) as a component of a new partnership with the UCMP. The plan, in short, is for Caltrans to deposit the fossils recovered from the 4th bore Caldecott Tunnel construction project in UCMP, and for UCMP to clean, catalogue, and curate them. For further details on the UCMP/Caltrans project, please see Mark Goodwin’s article. As the GSR for this project, it will be my job to prepare the fossils by cleaning the dirt off, gluing together what is broken, and properly curating them in the museum.

Scanning the Prep Lab

Scanning the Prep Lab from left to right. Click on the image to see an enlargement.

When I was a little girl with aspirations to become a scientist and study fossils, I was a volunteer paleontologist at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southeastern California. It was here that I first discovered the appeal of fossil preparation, and the wonderful feeling of reward that comes after many hours of meticulous work. Thus, I am quite excited about the work that I will do over the next few months!


I’ve just completed a scrub-down and organization of the UCMP fossil preparation lab in anticipation of this work, and the boxes of fossils will be arriving soon! As I proceed, I will report on the exciting finds that come to light as each box is opened, and the tale these fossils recount about the paleontology and geology of the East Bay hills.

Plants have a lot to tell us about the past …

Jeff Benca is a welcome addition to the Department of Integrative Biology and UCMP’s highly active paleobotany group as a member of Cindy Looy’s lab.  However, Jeff also spends a lot of his time “up the hill” at the UC Botanical Garden, where he has been given space for his astonishing collection of lycopods that he brought with him from his days at the University of Washington. This ancient vascular plant group (along with rare carnivorous plants and orchids) actually caught his interest while he was still a high school student in Seattle, but since those days, he has not only found ways to cultivate the plants, but is conducting research on both modern and extinct members of the lineage. Jeff hopes to discover how members of the lycopod group survived and thrived through the End-Permian extinction, 252 million years ago.

Both his research focus and unabashed enthusiasm caught the attention of National Geographic’s Explorers Journal and UC Berkeley’s News Center.