Plants fuel Earth’s biodiversity, connecting humans to all parts of the biological world around them. Giving scientists and non-scientists access to accurate knowledge about the evolutionary forces that generate species is the motivating force behind the work of Robin Hopkins, Assistant Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard and Faculty Fellow at the Arnold Arboretum.
Hopkins recently received a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Program. Through the NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology, Hopkins will continue her research of Texas phlox to teach and to inform the public on relevant topics related to biological diversity.
“Plants are responsible for every bit of energy that is consumed by all life. But humans are plant-blind,” she said. “We don’t necessarily see our connection to plants and have limited educational resources to teach us about plants.”
Awarded to inspire teaching and finding other avenues of education and community enrichment, the NSF grant will help Hopkins develop a research experience for first-year Harvard College students to study the process of speciation and how lineages evolve to become distinct species through pollination. The students will pull plants apart, then use microscopic and molecular lab skills and tools they may not have had in their high school classrooms to view the plant parts, according to Hopkins.
The grant will also help expand outreach activities through the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s Glass Flowers collection by developing self-guided activities for students in grades 3-12 and facilitating teacher training courses.
“The exciting thing about the NSF Career grant is that it is specifically designed to enable researchers to enhance both their research and their teaching simultaneously,” Hopkins said. “The goal is to get scientists to incorporate the research into the teaching curriculum, and to figure out ways to get the teaching curriculum to inspire and improve the research.”
This concept is not foreign to Hopkins, who grew up in the rural town of Brandon, Vt., and did not have access to science labs in her high school, or even an advanced biology course. In eighth grade she submitted a formal request to the school board to create that course—and succeeded. One of her high school teachers attended summer school to learn the advanced biology curriculum, and the following academic year, Hopkins, along with seven other students, sat in the school’s first advanced biology class.
“There were no microscopes, no molecular equipment, nothing in the science classroom but dirt. We had a forest and a river behind our school, and we would go play in it, do experiments, and bring plants back to the classroom. That’s what our research was,” she said. “I was going to learn every single word in the textbook because I knew that teacher had done it all for me.”
Hopkins eventually realized she was most inspired by asking questions that are evolution-focused, and after graduating in 1999 went on to Brown University. She received an AB in evolutionary biology 2003, then a PhD in biology from Duke University in 2010. Drawn to Texas phlox because she loves the “beautiful flowers,” Hopkins moved to Austin in 2011 where phlox grows natively.
“Nature generated an experimental setup wherein a species co-exists with two different but closely related species, and its interactions with each results in different evolutionary outcomes,” she said.
Hopkins is conducting a comparison between regions in Texas in which pairs of phlox species overlap geographically, yet distinctly different outcomes of speciation occur. She wants to understand the evolutionary forces in these two zones, to learn how selection, gene flow, and recombination contribute to evolution between co-occurring species, another part of her NSF grant.
“At the heart of biodiversity is difference. Species vary. Plants vary in flower color, flower size, and flower smell. These extremely charismatic traits are what make our gardens beautiful,” she said. “What’s exciting about phlox is that in this small clade of plants there are 67 species, with characteristics ranging whole spectrum. We can fundamentally come to understand these processes, and how and why we get biological diversity.”
Elena Kramer, Harvard Organismic and Evolutionary Biology department chair, said Hopkins’ research program combines a variety of strategies to answer fundamental questions about evolutionary biology.
“Dr. Hopkins is an exemplary teacher-scholar whose questions about how new species form and maintain their distinction are, in many ways, the holy grail of evolutionary biology,” she said. “Moreover, her ambitious educational and outreach plans have the potential to recruit more Harvard undergraduates into plant science and research opportunities at the Arnold Arboretum.”
Hopkins joined the Arboretum in 2014. Although she imagined becoming a college professor since her eighth-grade biology class, she did not expect to be working from a plant-based research institution as an evolutionary biologist since she was not trained in plant biology.
Faye Rosin, director of research facilitation at the Arnold Arboretum, said Hopkins is an integral part of the institution’s community.
“Robin is a fantastic teacher and we are thrilled that this grant will enhance her research while bringing Harvard undergraduates to the Arboretum to learn about evolution and plant diversity,” she said.
It is the Arboretum’s focus around biological plant life anchors both research and academia for Hopkins.
“I’ve always played in the dirt or been in a garden. I love plants and am surrounded by people at the Arboretum who also love plants, and do so many different things with them,” she said. “I’ve learned things that have made me think about my research and my teaching in totally different ways. Now that I’m here, I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”