Riley Rees receives Garden Club of America scholarship for summer research on carnation family

Published: April 7, 2022 Author: Staff reports

OHIO student Riley Rees will spend the summer researching the evolutionary history of carnations through a scholarship from the Garden Club of America.

Rees was awarded the 2022 Joan K. Hunt and Rachel M. Hunt Summer Scholarship in Field Botany for his project on “Evolutionary History and Floral Traits of Angiosperms.” The Garden Club of America funds scholarships to support field studies and opportunities for students to gain knowledge and experience outside the classroom.

"This is a very competitive award from a national search," said John Schenk, assistant professor of Environmental and Plant Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Rees in a second-year undergraduate student studying Environmental and Plant Biology in the Honors Tutorial College. He will conduct his research in Schenk’s laboratory.

"Flowers are surprisingly complex. An especially compelling mystery within that is how petals evolved,” Rees said. “This project hopes to look more in depth at that question through the lens of the carnation family of flowers.”

Rees decided to research carnations specifically because current research suggest that they lacked petals through most of their evolutionary history. “Currently, some flowers within the family lack petals while others have regained them, and many species have petals that develop inconsistently with traditional flowering plants,” he said.

The first step in Rees’ research will be developing a family tree. So far Rees has acquired 1,140 samples from GenBank, a collection of publicly available genetic information. The data acquired accounts for most groups in the carnation family. The few remaining groups will be acquired as samples and analyzed, which will be run through a computer modeling system to determine where they fit in the family tree.

"This in itself will be an accomplishment, as a complete family tree has never been published," Rees said. "Once this step is complete, the next will be to determine the petal structures of certain species. While many are known or can be inferred, identifying when and how different forms of petals occur will contextualize the evolutionary process at play.”

Once the data has been collected and analyzed, Rees said his research will likely be published.

Q&A with Riley Rees

Q: Who are your favorite professors and how did they make an impact on your life?

A: Dr. Schenk has definitely played a major role in my life, helping me both learn how to do research and better understand the professional sides of academia and botany. I also really enjoyed working with Dr. Shawn Kuchta, as he helped me understand and become passionate about studying evolution.

Q: What was your ah-ha moment at OHIO — that point where you said to yourself, “I’ve got this!”?

A: I’ll let you know when I have one.

Q:  What was the hardest hill you had to climb (not counting Jeff Hill) at OHIO? And how did you overcome challenges or obstacles in your path?

A: Staying on top of my workload, especially when I was feeling burnt out during COVID, has definitely been challenging. I try to balance schoolwork with spending time with my friends and take tasks one at a time as they come. It’s important to celebrate the little victories.

Q: What are your favorite OHIO memories?

A: Most of my favorite OHIO memories are just spending time with my friends. Especially freshman year, when none of us knew many people, and where all stressed out from online classes, it was really nice to have a game night, or make pancakes in the dorm kitchens, or even just sit down together to watch a movie.

Q: What’s the one thing you would tell a new OHIO student not to miss?

A: Obviously you shouldn’t miss your classes, but also try not to miss out on the other opportunities that are available. The people at OHIO, both faculty and students, care a lot about this community. Always take advantage of opportunities to engage with people, whether that’s a club that sounds interesting, or a colloquium in an area that interests you.