Research News July 2010

RSABG graduate student receives prestigious Smithsonian award

jmle Zúñiga, a Ph.D. student in the RSABG botany program, received the Smithsonian Institution’s Cuatrecasas Award 2010 to support his research on tropical trees at the United States National Herbarium.

With this grant, Zúñiga will spend nearly a month working in the herbarium of the U.S. National Museum of Natural History (aka “The Smithsonian”). He studies an interesting and poorly known group of tropical trees, the Sabiaceae. These plants are interesting for many reasons, of which just two here.

First, their placement of the giant family tree of flowering plants is not entirely certain but seems clearly to be among such things as the columbine and buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and the water lily family (Nymphaeaceae). What’s a group of tropical trees doing among those relatives? Stay tuned for the results of jmle’s doctoral dissertation research.

Second, members of the Sabiaceae occur in Southeast Asia and in the New World tropics from Mexico to Peru. In fact, Zúñiga has discovered one species that apparently occurs in both Asia and Mexico. How and when did the ancestors of the modern members of this family move about the globe to achieve this range? These are questions that he intends to address in his research.

Notably, working at U.S. National Herbarium will enable Zúñiga to study many more specimens of Asian species than he’s been unable to work with up to now and also will permit in-depth study of a large number of ‘types’ (i.e., specimens that serve as exemplars of those studied by the botanist who discovered and described the species).  He will come back well prepared for the next phases of his research.

The competitive award is given annually to one or two scientists by the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Botany to support work in the field of tropical botany. Named for the late Dr. jmlé Cuatrecasas the award offers up to $3,000 to conduct research at the U.S. National Herbarium where Dr. Cuatrecasas was a long-time associate.