Mount Vernon, Iowa
Computer Science Major
Matthew Lichty is interning at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where he's
working with a graduate student to research the evolutionary history of a
species of neotropical legume tree, Cynometra Bauhiniifolia. He gathers data on the species from other botanic gardens and museums to create ecological niche models that show the potential geographic distribution based on environmental conditions -- both present day and from approximately 20,000 years ago to show the change in suitable area. Matthew's internship is part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates program funded by the National Science Foundation.
Describe your day-to-day experiences.
My day-to-day experiences have varied greatly throughout the course of this internship. During the first week, I sat in on lectures about various environmental subjects with interns from the Conservation and Land Management (CLM) program. I then started working on my research project with my mentor, which has involved activities such as extracting DNA from plant samples, gathering data at The Field Museum's herbarium, learning how to create models with the statistical programming language R, and using maps to check the accuracy of latitude and longitude coordinates given by plant collection samples.
What has been the best part of your internship so far?
I think the coolest part was getting a tour of the "behind the scenes" areas of The Field Museum, where all the science happens and where they keep all their collections. In addition to that, I have spent a few days actually working in the Field Museum's herbarium, where they keep 2.7 million plant specimens.
What inspired you to pursue the internship?
I really wanted to start applying my computer science skills and pursuing my passion for ecology, and I wanted to experience working in academia. This internship looked like it would provide a perfect combination of what I wanted, so I applied for it, and I feel very glad that I got accepted.
Can you give an example of how your classroom experiences at Knox have benefited you in the internship?
The process of optimizing the performance of the models requires a knowledge of statistics applied to geographical concepts. Even though I had never learned specifically about geospatial statistical properties, Professor Peter Schwartzman gave me such good understanding of the mathematical concepts of statistics that I was able to easily apply my knowledge to the statistics used in ecological niche modeling. Rather than simply having our statistics class learn how to use a specific piece of software, he had us calculate most problems by hand or with only a calculator so that we would actually comprehend the mathematics of what we were studying. I really value having this fundamental knowledge of statistics, especially because of how crucial it is for understanding my project.
How do you think this experience will benefit you in terms of your future plans?
This internship is helping me feel confident as a scientist because I have a fair amount of control over the direction of the project, and I work independently on a lot of aspects of it. I hope having this experience will help me get other internship opportunities next summer, and that it will make me stand out in the future as I apply for jobs or graduate schools.
Photo below: A model that Matthew created shows the projection of suitability for the species Cynometra bauhiniifolia based on climatic environmental variables.