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Biology Professor, Student Profiled in State Science Journal

CONWAY, Ark. (December 13, 2010) – Dr. Ann Willyard and Nicole Seager, a junior biology major from Conway, were recently highlighted in the December 2, 2010 publication of The Arkansas Academy of Science. Dr. Willyard teaches Botany, Concepts of Biology: Plants and People, and Plant Systematics. Nicole recently received an undergraduate research grant from The Arkansas Academy of Science to support her work.

The article below was written by Leslie Malland and edited by Anthony K. Grafton.  

Dr. Ann Willyard, a native of northern California, is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Hendrix College. She received her B.A. from the University of California in Santa Cruz. After her undergraduate work, Dr. Willyard worked as a computer programmer analyst for private industry. She was a botanist by hobby during what she says was an “interesting career.”

Dr. Willyard returned to academia to earn her M.S. from California State University and then her Ph.D. from Oregon State University. For two years, Willyard did post-doctoral research at the University of South Dakota on a group of Hawaiian flowering plants. From there she came to Hendrix College and brought her fascination with pine species with her.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your work?  

“While at Oregon State I made a major switch from my undergraduate work. I never had a passion for biochemistry or molecular biology as an undergrad, but ended up studying molecular genetics and evolutionary biology in my graduate work. It has become a very productive avenue for research for me. My research involves pine tree speciation using genetic analysis. Pine species are quite young and have diverged rather recently. Since they are economically and ecologically valuable, pine trees are an important part of our world.”

“The offer to come to Hendrix was amazing. There is not a lot of pressure for me to have grants and publications for my own purpose; but I’m able to do enough of that and am highly encouraged to include undergrads in my research. So I have expanded what I was working on in Oregon and have really enjoyed involving students in these projects.”

Speaking of student involvement, can you tell us about Nicole Seager?  

“Nicole was a junior when she first started her project. She participated in the Odyssey program, competed and earned a spot in my lab. Her work involves finding length variations in the mitochondria of pines. All eukaryotes have two genomes and all plants have a 3rd genome, the chloroplast. Mitochondria are maternally inherited so an offspring always gets its mitochondrial genome from the mother. Unlike most plants, pines get chloroplasts from the pollen parent. So, with pine there is an opportunity to get three independent assessments of ancestry. Nicole uses nuclear and chloroplast DNA in her research. She conducted the majority of her research over this past summer when she was a rising senior. Nicole and her team collected samples, worked in the lab, and analyzed results. They have worked really hard on this project. Then she started screening for length variations among mitochondria. It’s been more challenging than Nicole originally expected. For what she’s doing the skill level must be high. She’s been able to find a few variations so far. She’s presenting at the AAS meeting this spring where she will speak on her mitochondria work and support it with chloroplast information. After she’s done all of this work it will still be an open question of how informative it is. But others will be able to build on her results.”

“She was thrilled to receive the new AAS undergraduate research grant. It was Nicole’s first research grant. It has been very helpful to her and her project. The grant really affirmed to her that her work is acknowledged and important. It told her that her contribution is valued. She got a big confidence boost from the grant. She is excited to present her research and findings this spring at the AAS conference. Developing these research and presentation skills will be beneficial for her future no matter where she chooses to go on from Hendrix.”

Tell me about your experience with the AAS.  

“I had heard good things about the AAS from other members of the Hendrix faculty. One of the main things on top of my to-do list was to get to know my colleagues. The first conference was in Little Rock so it was fortuitous. I would have been attending regardless, but the convenience was nice. I think the opportunity to develop and write small grants on projects that [undergraduates] thought through is such good experience.”

“This grant is such an affirmation of everything she’s done. It can be hard to get your confidence up as a student. These local grants are a wonderful opportunity to support and encourage the students. Presenting projects to such a supportive group is very positive for young people. I don’t how many applicants and grants they had this year, but I will always encourage my students to compete and present. These conferences are a great opportunity.”

What is in your future?  

“I have a long-term plan to sample the rest of the ponderosa groups (17 species all together). I would love to be able to involve students in sampling the rest. New techniques are available and I would like to adopt them and hopefully include cutting edge molecular testing. I want to move away from asking ‘how different these species are’ and start asking ‘so what genetic changes have made the species look like this?’ I want to find what exactly had to change to allow the species to change and adapt to certain environments. That’s the direction we’re going but its slow getting there. It’s slow progress inventing the tools as you go. Nicole’s work helps invent the tools. Her progress in this marker development has been really amazing.”

Dr. Willyard currently lives in Conway with her husband Gene. They have two grown sons and one grandson. Dr. Willyard recently participated in Dr. Bill Doria’s video recording project. Some of her lab videos are available at Nicole Seager plans to attend a graduate program with the intention of working with bones, either medically or anthropologically.