Blooming With Curiosity: Graduate Student Studies Native Orchid Species

Thursday, Jul 27, 2023

Second-year Biological Sciences master’s degree student Bethany Simpson is positively  blooming with curiosity. The self-professed lover of the natural world has always been interested in evolution and ecology. After she completed her undergraduate degree at Florida Atlantic, she interned at FAU’s Native Orchid Propagation Lab within the Pine Jog Environmental Education Center in West Palm Beach. Now, Simpson is hooked on studying an orchid species that is native to South Florida. 

What does your research focus on?bethany simpson orchid

My research specifically focuses on uncovering the population genetic structure of the Pine-pink orchid (Bletia purpurea). This orchid species is historically abundant throughout the greater Everglades’ ecosystem. However, with urbanization in our area over the last 100 years, this species is now reduced and fragmented, and it’s considered threatened in Florida. No population genetic analysis has been done on this species, so I am hoping to establish the first genetic baseline, which will help guide conservation and mitigation strategies to protect them in the wild.

Where do you conduct your research?  

I have collected samples all over South Florida, with each site requiring a different local/state/or federal research permit, including: 

  • Palm Beach County: J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area and Hungryland Boardwalk and Trail (managed by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Loxahatchee)
  • Collier County: Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge (Naples), Big Cypress National Preserve (near Ochopee), and the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park (near Copeland)
  • Miami-Dade County: Everglades National Park 

How will your research contribute to supporting the health and restoration of South Florida and its ecosystems?  

This research will provide the first genetic framework of a state-threatened orchid species that was historically abundant throughout the Everglades. With this new information, we can look at genetic drift, inbreeding, and possible founder effects since these plant patches are scattered and potentially reproductively isolated. We hope the genetic analysis can be used to guide future reintroduction, conservation, and mitigation strategies. There have been little to no population studies done on any terrestrial orchids native to the Everglades, so this can also serve as a model for other genera. 

Why did you choose this field of study?

bethany simpson orchid lab

I spent much of my undergraduate time at FAU exploring different labs and volunteer groups, such as Nathan Dorn, Ph.D., and his Wetland Ecology Lab, and a semester at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park with Dianne Owen, Ph.D., removing invasive plants.  

Prior to applying to graduate school, I started interning at FAU’s Native Orchid Propagation Lab at Pine Jog Environmental Education Center, which introduced me to the complexities of orchids, plant tissue culturing, and plant reintroduction. After a year or so, I really wanted to answer questions at the molecular/genetic level which inspired me to reach out to Professor Jay Baldwin, Ph.D., to work in his Conservation Genetics lab and pursue my master’s degree looking at the genetic structuring of these plants in Florida.  

Pine Jog is also supporting my thesis project, and I have now been a part of the lab for over two years. I also became one of their coordinators in November! 

How does FAU help graduate researchers?

FAU has been really great at supporting my graduate research. The FAU/Pine Jog Orchid Lab encouraged me to study orchids for my master’s thesis and is providing me $10,000, which is the majority of the funding for my project. I have been fortunate to also receive two additional scholarships from FAU’s Biology Department this past year of $500 each. My advisors have encouraged me to participate in competitions such as the Three Minute Thesis Competition and Graduate Research Day, as well as to travel for research conferences. I hope to attend my first conference this summer, Botany 2023, in Boise, Idaho.  

Are you collaborating with other faculty members/mentors on your project?  

I started my master’s program in a unique way, as I already had an independent idea for my thesis project and funding from Pine Jog, but no advisor who specifically worked on orchids from FAU. I learned about Baldwin’s Conservation Genetics Lab at the Davie campus and pitched him my orchid project. The molecular techniques and population genetics studies that are going on in his lab are very much aligned with my research goals — just different model organisms! He has been so open and helpful to my ideas, and I feel very supported in his lab.  

I am also being co-advised by Lauren A. Eserman, Ph.D., a research scientist from the Atlanta Botanical Garden, who focuses on conservation genetics in the botanical world. Her lab designed and developed a genetic baitset specific to the Orchid family, which I will be using for my thesis project.  

Tags: science

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