Chelsea Specht is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant and Microbiology at UC Berkeley. She and her husband, UC Berkeley environmental scientist Patrick O'Grady, will be joining the OLLI faculty at Tahéima, giving talks, leading field trips, and available for conversations on the subject of environmental science and biodiversity in Mexico.
What drew you to biology initially?
I've always loved nature and natural history. As a child I was constantly collecting salamanders, snakes, frogs, fish -- anything we could find and keep as a pet in our backyard terrarium. In college I was pre-med, thinking that if you liked biology, you naturally became a doctor. I had the fortunate experience of participating in undergraduate research and ultimately completing and publishing an honor's thesis. This exposure to research science opened my eyes to the possibility of pursuing science as a career.
How have your research interests evolved?
My first research experience was in neuroscience and pharmacology. While I was working in a pharmacology lab at Johns Hopkins, I read an article on drug discovery via ethnopharmacology. I was very attracted to the idea of traveling to the tropics, working with indigenous cultures to study the plants that they used for various medical purposes, then bringing those plants back to the lab to perform detailed pharamacological research on the active compounds found in those plants. I entered graduate school with the goal of being an ethnopharmacologist, but on my first trip into the field I realized that my interests lay elsewhere. Rather than being interested in the medicinal properties of the plants, I was mostly interested in understanding the biological diversity of the tropical forests. I found myself completely captivated with learning the names of all the plants and understanding how they were related to one another. I shifted my focus to the study of plant systematics and evolutionary biology, initially just trying to understand basic phylogenetic relationships -- or the 'family tree' of different plant lineages. My research is now focused on studying the processes that lead to plant diversification and evolution, from the genetic pathways underlying floral development and its evolution to the molecular biology of plant 'behaviors' such as carnivory and thermogenesis. I also spent three years working for the World Wildlife Fund in Bolivia, and I have a strong interest in the application of evolutionary biology research to conservation and management decisions.
How did you get started working in Mexico and what are you doing there?
As a graduate student most of my work focused in South America, but the plants that I worked on are found as far north as Mexico so I have been in contact with herbaria and research institutes in Mexico since the mid-1990s. Since moving to California, I have become interested in the biogeography and patterns of species diversity of the desert and Mediterranean climates of western North America, spanning California and northern Mexico. I have an ongoing collaboration with Dra. Victoria Sosa at Instituto de Ecología (INECOL) to investigate the species and population level diversity in various monocot species such as native onions (Allium), the 'desert spoon' and 'pony tail palms' (Dasylirion and Nolina) and millas (Milla), and work with her students to study population genetics of native Mexican orchids and cycads.
What are you looking forward to exploring with the OLLI group at Tahéima?
I'm looking forward to focusing on the harnessing of biodiversity to generate food, clothing, and shelter. I am particularly interested in how more locally-applied farming practices actually enhance the genetic diversity of crop species, while monoculture and pressure from international markets have forced farmers to use specific varieties, effectively eliminating genetic diversity and opening up crops to potential eradication by disease. As Mexico is the origin of domestication of many of our more interesting crops (corn, beans, squash, agave), it is a perfect place to discuss the importance of genetic diversity within a crop species and the impact of large scale farming on the maintenance of variety.