Plotting the Course for Systematic Biology

While many of us were still trying to come up with our New Year’s resolutions (or had already failed at keeping them), a group of systematic biologists were meeting in Florida to collectively decide where they want their field to be when they meet in 2030.

“It’s important every now and then to come together as a community and discuss what the important research priorities are for the community,” says Emily Sessa, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Sessa was the organizer of SSB 2020: Systematics in the Swamp, held January 3-6 in Gainesville, FL.

Systematic biologists describe new species and determine — using a variety of criteria, including physical and molecular traits — how those species are related to one another. The goal is to see where each species fits in the family tree of life.

According to Sessa, the discussion at SSB 2020 went beyond just research goals. “We talked a lot about what our priorities as a community need to be and where we want to be moving in the future.”

SSB 2030

As a group, the more than 200 meeting attendees engaged in an exercise facilitated by KI in which they were encouraged to dream big and set goals for where they wanted their field to be in ten years. Then, a smaller group of 30 took part in a one-day Scoping Session in which those goals were prioritized and clustered. Lastly, small groups came up with concrete steps each could take in the next year that would get the collective closer to those goals.  

“We have definitely been thriving since the meeting,” Sessa reports. “These activities galvanized the community in the intended way.”

Participants in the one-day workshop came up with this list of goals for 2030, which they reported back to the larger group at the end of the meeting.

  • Increase the representation of systematic biologists involved in interdisciplinary research.
  • Increase the diversity of those doing systematics research.
  • Resolve evolutionary relationships in the “dark areas” of the Tree of Life
  • Integrate information from the fossil and geologic record with data on living species.
  • Balance the focus on lineages that are intensively studied (i.e., model clades) with advancing knowledge about other less well known groups.
  • Develop new models and tools that will allow us to reconstruct the complete tree of life.

Modeling Inclusion

Organizers worked to make the group of participants in the one-day workshop a diverse one. Among those invited to participate was Tom Devitt, Ph.D., Department of Integrative Biology and Biodiversity Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Devitt teaches research methods in biodiversity science to undergraduates and conducts research on local groundwater salamanders — many of which are threatened or endangered. However, until recently, Devitt worked in local government for the City of Austin where he applied systematics to the  conservation of endangered salamanders found in and around Austin. The perspective of a biologist working in municipal government was among the diverse perspectives represented, Devitt says.

At the end of the event, Devitt’s group committed to collaborating on a review paper on the importance of focusing on areas of the Tree of Life in which little or nothing is known about evolutionary relationships–the so-called “dark parts” of the Tree. They intend to submit it to the society’s journal, Systematic Biology. “We want to highlight the need for this type of research and the potential funding opportunities that do exist for it.” 

Keeping Up

Also represented in the group of 30 were graduate students and early career scientists. Kinsey Brock is a fifth-year doctoral student at the University of California, Merced who sits on SSB’s student council. Brock, who works on Aegean wall lizards endemic to the Greek islands, says she was excited to work alongside her academic elders in charting a course for the future. One challenge Brock was particularly interested in was how systematic biologists can keep up with the amount of data being generated by new technology. “The field is evolving so quickly with all the new sequencing technology that’s giving us so much genetic data. And it’s just amazing to be reading papers that are only a few years old that are already outdated. The field can’t even keep up with the amount of data that we have.”

The group Brock worked with also addressed the challenge of making systematics more inclusive. “Our main thesis statement was: ‘We will never have a complete tree of life without a complete representation of diverse scientists contributing to that tree of life.’ The darkest parts of the tree are in regions of the world that are underrepresented in science.” 

Ensuring Diversity

Rayna Bell is an early career scientist. She works on amphibians and reptiles, mostly in central Africa. Among Bell’s concerns is that the field stays relevant. “There’s this misconception that systematic biologists are these out-of-touch researchers hiding away in their offices just describing species. That gives the impression that systematics is not really the central part of evolutionary biology that it is,” says Bell, who is an assistant curator of herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences.  

Bell and Brock were part of a group that addressed increasing the diversity of those who do systematics research. Their next step is to have SSB representation at conferences that seek to increase representation in STEM (e.g. SACNAS). “We want to organize professional development workshops for new PIs at our annual conference that facilitate networking and promote best practices for recruiting and mentoring lab members from diverse backgrounds,” Bell says.

Point of Reckoning

Sessa says she has recruited others to help steward the six focus areas. She adds that follow-up meetings and more opportunities for the rest of the community to get involved are in the works. She is optimistic that leaders will stay committed and broad participation will continue. “It was sort of a point of reckoning for the community, but the discussions allowed everyone to weigh-in. I am hopeful we’ll continue to work towards these goals, making opportunities for everyone to participate.”

In Their Own Words:

Got eDNA? Listen to UT Austin’s Tom Devitt, PhD explain how eDNA might help salamander conservation efforts.

How inclusive is your science? UC Merced graduate student, Kinsey Brock talks about partnering with Greek professors and including their students in her field work.