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Spotlight on Nyree Zerega: Director of Graduate Studies of the Program in Plant Biology and Conservation

Created: October 1, 2018

Nyree Zerega is the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) of the Program in Plant Biology and Conservation at the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, offered jointly with the Chicago Botanic Garden. Her research focuses primarily on evolution, systematics, biogeography, and reproductive ecology of plants; as well as conservation of plant genetic resources (especially underutilized crops and their wild relatives).

What is the most rewarding part of being a DGS?
Having the opportunity to interact with so many different students outside of a class or research setting is a very rewarding part of being a DGS. They all have such unique experiences and ideas. I have learned and continue to learn so much from them.

What advice would you give to someone just beginning as a DGS?
While many aspects of being a DGS involve some pretty straightforward and routine activities, unique situations can pop up at any time, and it's okay not to have an answer for everything. There are a lot of great resources available to figure things out, like other DGSes and TGS Student Services. Don’t be afraid to utilize these resources when you need to. 

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
In very general terms, I study the evolution of plants. I use DNA to build family trees of plant species to find out who is related to whom and what that can tell us about how, when, and where certain plant features came to be. I'm especially interested in underutilized crop species (like jackfruit and breadfruit) and figuring out what their wild relatives are so we can conserve them to help diversify our crops. I also study how plants are pollinated, especially poorly-studied pollination modes that involve tiny insects, like thrips and midges. Although people often primarily think about bees and butterflies as pollinators, there is a whole other fascinating world out there.

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
I'm intrigued by the amazing diversity of plants. There are about 400,000 species of plants, ranging from tiny duckweeds on a pond to giant sequoias, succulent cacti, and stunning orchid flowers. I'm fascinated by all of the ways people have utilized and tinkered with plants for our benefit, especially with regard to food and crop domestication. This led me to study the evolution of this diversity, with a focus on food plants. I hope that my work will help advance our understanding of plant evolution and the conservation of important diversity that can be utilized to diversify the global food supply.

What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
Much of my research involves fieldwork, mostly in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. This definitely presents some logistical challenges, but working with scientists and students in other countries and experiencing other cultures and ecosystems offers incredible experiences that are well worth the challenges.

What do you like to do for fun?
I enjoy exploring natural areas in the Chicago region and hanging out with my family.