Name: Michelle Chan YeeTeng Faculty: Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Year of Study: 4th Supervisor: Dr. Sharon Gorski
How did you get involved in research?
It all started in my second
year when I approached Dr. Plettner casually to ask for a volunteer position in
her lab without the intention of actually getting it. She was really nice and
supportive as a PI and always encouraged us to attend seminars and get around knowing
more people. I guess that probably is the stepping stone of my life-long career
as a researcher.
What will you be working on this summer?
I did a thesis honours with Dr. Gorski in the Spring on compensatory autophagy induced by proteasome inhibitors in breast cancer cell lines. As part of the project of VPR-USRA that I applied for the summer, I will be working mostly on the follow-up study of my research aim and potentially on characterizing autophagy regulators in Drosophila.
What is a typical “day in the life” in the lab for you?
Cells passaging and drug treatment. I have had weeks of Western blot and CV which are not really fun.
Favourite science joke or meme from your field?
What do you call an acid with
an attitude? A-mean-oh acid.
What scares you the most in the lab or the field?
When my cells
get contaminated because that would literally mean another futile week with no
She climbs to the floor labelled ‘Lepidoptera
Collections’ which contains over four million butterfly and moth specimens
meticulously organized and stored in 30,000 drawers. These specimens were
collected by scientists and naturalists around the world throughout the 20th
and 21st centuries.
Lewthwaite’s research combines spatial
ecology and evolutionary relationships between species to help evaluate the
biodiversity impacts of human-caused climate change. Her goal is to provide
scientific information to help governments, communities, and decision makers
prioritize conservation efforts.
She chose to study and examine these
patterns in Canadian butterflies because they have short lifespans and are
sensitive to environmental changes. Butterflies respond to changing climate
quickly in ways that are fairly easy to track. Furthermore, because butterflies
are popular organisms, insect collectors and researchers have deposited many
specimens in museum collections.
Historically, animal and plant specimens
were collected for anatomical
research, allowing researchers to organize the vast diversity of life into
different classification levels. Charles Darwin is
perhaps the most famous collector. The specimens he gathered on the Galapagos
Islands allowed him to review evidence, observe variation in related species, and
formulate his theory on evolution by natural selection.
Lewthwaite and other scientists recognize
the wealth of information contained in such collections. With her research, she
seeks to determine how Canadian butterflies have shifted their ranges over
space and time because of climate change. She builds on past work by other
biologists in order to better understand the future.
Museums’ collections helped early scientists discover and understand the natural world; now, they provide information on our changing planet through big data research.
data refers to large amounts of data samples that can be used to generate mathematical models
and analyze resulting trends. The analyses are vital in exploring global changes
that span extensive spatial and temporal (time) scales.
To carry out her research, Lewthwaite must
first transfer and input 25,000 written specimen records across 130 species of
Canadian butterflies from the Smithsonian Institute into electronic databases.
Each record contains information on where and when an insect was collected.
The information will help her create the
following tools to help her understand and anticipate Canadian butterflies’ ecological
and evolutionary responses into the future.
Species range maps to show the
historical and modern geographic distribution of butterflies across Canada and
Species Distribution Models that
allow Lewthwaite to visualize how species have expanded or contracted their ranges
during the past century. From this, she will be able to further identify which
species are not adapting well to climate change.
The resulting insights will be key to determining how to best prioritize and protect butterfly species as climate changes.
Far from the Smithsonian’s extensive butterfly
collections in Washington, DC, Lewthwaite applies her research ideas and
methods at the regional scale in British Columbia.
She uses historical records from the Royal BC Museum and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum as well as
modern records from the citizen science app, eButterfly to explore how interactions
between butterfly species in a given spatial grid have changed over time as
climate has warmed. Combining historical and modern records allows her to
analyze trends within BC without having to conduct extensive field work across
the entire province.
Her research suggests that, as climate warms, species with multiple host plants (generalist species) are adapting well compared to species that rely on only a few host plants for their life cycle (specialist species).
It also confirms that BC’s Okanagan region has a unique evolutionary
history and diversity. Its hot, sunny, dry climate creates a desert-like
environment that allows organisms like mormon
metalmarks, rattlesnakes and cacti to thrive and, supports a rich, distinct
biodiversity. This unique ecosystem is found nowhere else in Canada, but widespread
urban and agricultural development threatens its integrity. Lewthwaite’s
research aims to provide evidence and solutions for conserving these rare
Her early analyses demonstrate how important natural history museums are and how using their collections for big data can help visualize and predict climate effects on biodiversity across large geographical scales.
She says, however, that natural history
museums are typically underfunded and underappreciated resources. Despite the
collections’ rich scientific information, funding and grants for this type of
research are scarce. In addition, gaps in the electronic specimen databases
reduce their accessibility to researchers.
She hopes her work with butterflies will be
used to promote the importance of natural history museums to research and to
communicate the bigger messages of how changing climate is impacting wildlife
and their ecosystems.
For Lewthwaite, answers to big questions
sometimes lie in simple, pinned butterflies.