Flower Power

Conserving Biodiversity

Four students hiking

Can undergraduates lead research to save endangered plant species? Students at Mills are showing how it’s done: conducting laboratory analysis of DNA, recovering species’ lost genetic diversity, contributing their knowledge to conservation plans.

Biology major Brittany Burnett has mastered all this—and more. “This summer I ran a conservation genetics lab on campus,” she says. “But before I came to Mills, I couldn’t have dreamed I’d gain such unparalleled experience at my age.”

woman in lab coat in lab
This summer I ran a conservation genetics lab on campus.

Before I came to Mills, I couldn’t have dreamed I’d gain such unparalleled experience at my age.

BRITTANY BURNETT , CLASS OF 2017 

Growing as a Leader

After high school in Sonoma County, Burnett chose Mills because of our strong science program and the myriad opportunities to work closely with accomplished faculty researchers. She took a biology class with Professor Sarah Swope, who studies two very rare, endangered species of flowers: the Tiburon jewelflower and the Tiburon mariposa lily. “Dr. Swope’s enthusiasm for her research is infectious,” says Burnett. “I imagined myself doing what she does.”

A Thriving Future

two women talkingIn her junior year, Burnett joined the student research team mentored by Swope. The team carried out fieldwork in the flowers’ natural habitat, across the San Francisco Bay in nearby Marin. They monitored plant growth and population, experimented with pollination, and transplanted seedlings into new plots. They also analyzed the plants’ DNA in state-of-the-art labs on the Mills campus.

By her senior year, Swope says, “Brittany became a natural leader in the field and in the lab. She’d guide younger students to become part of the team. She really took charge.” With funding from the Jill Barrett Biology Research Program, Burnett continued with the team the summer after she graduated and led their laboratory research.

Burnett and Swope are particularly concerned about the fate of the jewelflower, at high risk of extinction because of climate change and human encroachment on its habitat. Their research shows that the species has lost genetic diversity over time, hurting its ability to evolve and endure.

“I feel a responsibility to conserve what remains of this species, given the hand we've collectively had in bringing about its decline,” Burnett says. She and Swope found they could regenerate the jewelflower’s genetic diversity to increase its survival chances. “With the data that Brittany’s been collecting, we have enough information to write a conservation plan for the species,” says Swope. The plan will be adopted by federal and local agencies seeking to save the plant. In addition, Swope, Burnett, and other student researchers are co-authoring articles on the species for academic journals. They've even been featured on the nightly news!

students in field
With the data that Brittany’s been collecting, we have enough information to write a conservation plan for the species.PROFESSOR SARAH SWOPE

“I’ve never given more of myself to anything,” says Burnett, who wrote her senior thesis on the jewelflower. “All the students on the team felt the research was ours as well as Dr. Swope’s. We shared a strong sense of camaraderie and collaboration. Our contributions were always encouraged. I’m incredibly proud of the work that we’ve done.”

Burnett also values the insights into career options she’s gained from Swope. Before continuing on to graduate school, she aims to explore more lab work opportunities and broaden her experience. And she plans to travel to Cuba, where she’ll experiment with growing mushrooms to restore habitat on an ecofarm.

As a female scientist and as an individual, my work with Dr. Swope and my academic experience at Mills have given me confidence in what I’m doing now and in my decisions about where I’ll go next.Brittany Burnett 

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