St. Olaf College | News

A summer of research at Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History

Catherine Gilbert stands in front of plants in the St. Olaf greenhouse.
Catherine Gilbert ’20 is spending 10 weeks in Washington, D.C., this summer conducting research at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

“My big thing is plants,” says Catherine Gilbert ’20, a biology major at St. Olaf College. “Plants are really interesting in the way their DNA can mutate yet they still grow and thrive; they can go ‘wrong’ in a lot of ways.”

Spending time with her grandfather, an ichthyologist, or person who studies fish, made Gilbert realize from an early age that she wanted to pursue a career in the sciences. Then, in eighth grade, Gilbert began reading about Norman Borlaug and his work in the Green Revolution. From there, her interest in plants grew and grew.

Catherine Gilbert stands in front of a Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History sign.
Catherine Gilbert ’20 stands in front of the National Museum of Natural History, where she is interning this summer.

That passion for plants is taking Gilbert incredible places. This summer, she was awarded a Natural History Research Experiences (NHRE) 10-week academic internship program in botany at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Fewer than 20 undergraduates from around the world are selected annually to work with museum scientists to complete an independent research project in anthropology, botany, entomology, invertebrate zoology, mineral science, paleobiology, or vertebrate zoology. Students receive a stipend and free housing accommodations in dormitories at George Washington University.

Gilbert’s project at the Smithsonian focuses on extracting DNA from the Vitis cinerea species complex of grape plants and characterizing seed and leaf trichome morphology using scanning electron microscopy in order to generate a molecular phylogeny. The project’s ultimate goal is “showing how different species and subspecies are related and evolved,” Gilbert explains. “I’m really excited to work in the lab,” she says.

“My big thing is plants. Plants are really interesting in the way their DNA can mutate yet they still grow and thrive; they can go ‘wrong’ in a lot of ways.”

Her Smithsonian internship builds on Gilbert’s already impressive botany experience. In the summer after her first year at St. Olaf, Gilbert spent six weeks working at the University of Florida Museum of Natural History (UFMNH) in the Soltis lab of Molecular Systematics & Evolutionary Genetics.

I supported the iDigBio project, with the objective of creating DNA barcodes from herbarium specimens,” she says. “I extracted more than 100 herbarium samples.”

The Natural History Research Experiences (NHRE) interns on May 29, 2018, on the National Mall steps of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (Front row, l-r) 1.Rilla McKeegan, Freshman at Amherst College. 2. D’Maia Curry, Junior at Pomona College. 3. Ashley Espinoza, Junior at Mercyhurst University. 4. Amanda Markee, Junior at New College of Florida. 5. Jared Richards, Sophomore at University of North Carolina. (Middle row, l-r) 6. Maya Woolfolk, Sophomore at University of Kentucky. 7. Sadie Friend, Sophomore at Radford University. 8. Kendra McCabe, Senior at Arizonia State University. 9. Becca Goughnour, Sophomore at Adrian College. 10. Hanna Ranft, Sophomore at John Hopkins University. 11. Catherine Gilbert (Back row, l-r) 12. Mason Scher, Sophomore at Drew University. 13. Jake Aquadro, Sophomore at Brown University. 14. Ian Ocampo, Junior at, Sonoma State College. 15. Alec Wilken, Junior at University of Missouri. 16. Gina Errico, Sophomore at The College of New Jersey.
The 2018 Natural History Research Experiences interns, including Catherine Gilbert ’20, on the National Mall steps of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

While with the UFMNH, Gilbert worked on many plant species from the southwestern United States. Alongside the invaluable lab experience, Gilbert met and connected with a number of scientists. When she returned to St. Olaf, she found some of their names cropping up in her textbooks.

The natural sciences were one of things that drew Gilbert to St. Olaf. Working in the St. Olaf greenhouse led her to better appreciate plant science and a desire to pursue a formal summer research opportunity. Gilbert also loved that the small class sizes meant she could get to know her professors and classmates. It was St. Olaf Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Charles Umbanhowar Jr., in fact, who recommended that Gilbert apply for the Smithsonian research opportunity.

Post-graduation, she hopes to continue pursuing botany and is considering graduate school.

When thinking on her passion for plants, Gilbert says, “lots of people overlook plants, because their first instinct is to look at a flower.” But Gilbert sees beyond flowers. Her eyes hunt for stories hidden in twisted roots and wavering leaves. Her mind wonders about histories buried deep within DNA. Flowers are nice. Flowers are pretty. But plants? Plants are incredible.