Visions from nature
Plant Phylogenies and Community Dynamics at the NTNU University Museum with Ida Mienna
Ida Mienna is a 23-year old Master’s student at NTNU University, currently writing her thesis on plant phylogenies at the Department of Natural History at NTNU University Museum. I spoke with Ida about why she chose the museum for her thesis, her experiences thus far and what she has planned for the future.
What’s a normal day in your life here at the Museum like?
Well right now, I’m extracting DNA and performing PCR for around 200 plant species, so I’m spending most of my time down here sequencing. I only have one class at the moment, and it’s great being in an environment where I have so much space to work. The facilities are great, I love it here. I really enjoy being down here at the Museum.
I‘ve got a workspace up at the Department of Biology at Gloshaugen too, but I mainly spend time down here. The environment, the people here, there’s a smaller team, you get to know people, there’s a real sense of community.
“The facilities are great, I love it here. I really enjoy being down here at the Museum.”
Coming to Trondheim
What brought you to Trondheim initially?
One of the main reasons I came here was that I’d heard about the student life. Since I’m from the north, just east of Tromso, I had the easy choice of going to UiT, it’s three hours from my hometown. But I’d heard so many good things about Trondheim, they facilitate a lot for students, and there are so many different sports you can do, there’s always something on. It’s really amazing.
Did you study here before your masters?
Yes, I started my Bachelor of Biology here in 2013. It was three years, and I started my Masters in Ecology, Evolution, Biosystematics and Behaviour directly afterwards.
How have you enjoyed your Master’s course so far?
It’s been great! I’d had so many theory courses in my Bachelor degree, so I wanted to get as much practical experience as possible. So I’ve chosen courses for my Masters which are more fieldwork based, more. I’ve taken study-design courses, and data analysis courses. I really enjoyed my special syllabus as well. It was essentially preparation for my thesis, it took me deeper into biosystematics and phylogeny. We had the chance for a bit of fieldwork, some of it with James Speed, who I’d already learnt from in my Bachelor’s degree.
ECO-BAR and finding a supervisor
You’re currently completing your master’s thesis with James. How did that come about?
In the last semester of our Bachelor’s, we have a day called Eco-Bar, where different professors come and talk about their projects for a few minutes. James presented his project, and I went to talk to him afterwards, as he’s a really good professor and a great teacher. I thought he’d make an excellent supervisor. I really like community ecology, the big picture of biology, and James works on an ecosystem scale, which was perfect. I knew that I didn’t want to work with one specific species, rather on the whole picture.
“I really like community ecology, the big picture of biology, and James works on an ecosystem scale, which was perfect.”
I told James what my interests were and asked if he had any ideas, and then he invited me down to the Museum and proposed the project that we’re currently working on. I decided on the project last May, before I’d started classes, and started work on it last August, when the semester kicked off. Mike Martin came on board as a second supervisor just after I started.
Tell me a bit about your project.
I wanted to see if there are areas in Norway where there’s higher diversity and endemism compared to species occurrence and abundance. We’re looking more at phylogenetic diversity which is based on evolutionary history. What I’ve seen with a preliminary phylogeny is that some species are a lot more related than we thought they were, so it’s really cool to see new results!
I also hope to identify regions in Norway that may have been refugia during the last glacial maximum using the spatial phylogenetics method as I expect localities like these to have higher phylogenetic endemism than others.
How have you enjoyed working with Mike, James and Mika?
Really good. They’re really helpful and they’re really effective teachers. I get a lot of experience working with them that I just wouldn’t be able to gain elsewhere. They have given me the opportunity to go to Stockholm for a symposium in November about the natural history of Scandinavia and also to Oslo for the Norwegian ecological society conference this January to present my preliminary results.
New skills and the future
What sort of resources are you working with?
I’m working with about 200 herbarium samples. I get some here in Trondheim, but we have to loan some from other herbaria in Norway. Mika Bendiksby, our herbarium’s curator, is another of my co-supervisors, and she’s a guest researcher at the Natural History Museum in Oslo. If I was to borrow the samples directly it would have been a nightmare, but Mika is well connected at the Museum in Oslo and borrows directly from their herbarium.
I also work with GenBank, which is a repository for genetic sequences. I took a course on Biosystematics and Biogeography during my Bachelor’s, and I learnt a lot about sequencing and GenBank then. I also work with GBIF, which is an online database which you can download occurrence data from, where people have seen a plant or animal and reported back. Again, I’d been introduced to that in my Bachelor’s, but it’s easy to learn and I picked up most of my skills during my Master’s work. I also use Lid’s Norsk Flora a fair bit, which is the go-to for flora in Norway.
“I really love Biology and I want to be a scientist, so I’m really motivated to do a PhD.”
What’s your plan once you’ve finished sequencing?
I’ll be sending off my PCR for the three genetic markers that I’m using to either Macrogen or Eurofins to do Sanger sequencing in June. Then I’ll get the data back in late August and be able to start aligning the sequences, and constructing the phylogeny. Then I’ll be able to combine this with the occurrence data and identify areas in Norway with more or less phylogenetic diversity.
I really love Biology and I want to be a scientist, so I’m really motivated to do a PhD. I love student life here and I’d love to stay in Trondheim for a PhD.