Rlab in the time of COVID III

As the spring semester comes to a close and the weather gets warmer, the Rothfels Lab has been spending more time outside. Keir and his family recently took a trip to the Pinole Valley Watershed, where they soaked up the stunning views and admired some beautiful flowers. They also saw hummingbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds and some so-called UFOs (Unidentified Flying Organisms).

But the highlight of their trip was climbing trees — the Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata) were majestic, and the California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) they came across is the biggest Keir has ever seen (both pictured below)!

While there has been plenty of spring frolicing, there is also some big news to share. Mike’s paper — “A Bayesian Approach for Inferring the Impact of a Discrete Character on Rates of Continuous-Character Evolution in the Presence of Background-Rate Variation” — was published in the May issue of Systematic Biology. In it, he tackles how and why rates of character evolution vary between species using a new Bayesian approach, cleverly called MuSSCRat, to infer the impact of a discrete trait on rates of continuous-character evolution in the presence of background-rate variation.

And Mike is not alone in his success. The Sraavya, the lab’s graduating high school senior, will begin attending Harvard in the fall! Sraavya has been working with the Rothfels Lab since 2017, contributing to many projects like Mick’s work on Azolla aquatic ferns and assisting Carl in clarifying the taxonomic relationships within Athyrium and possibly even identifying new genera if needed.

Her favorite memory of working in the lab, however, is not learning how to extract DNA and run PCRs and gels, or even learning to design her own primers — it’s the time she ate lunch with all her new labmates at Cancún during her first summer on campus. Sraavya particularly remembers how impressed she was when Mick and Forrest would slip into casual debates on Western philosophy and music.

While Sraavya isn’t quite sure what she wants to study at Harvard yet (who is, in their first year?), she was drawn to their liberal arts undergraduate approach and hopes to explore the intersection of science and the humanities. So far, the History and Science major has particularly piqued her interest, as it would allow her to learn about a specific scientific field in conjunction with its sociopolitical implications and some scientific philosophy.

Whichever major she chooses, Sraavya will bring all the knowledge she’s gained from her time in the lab with her to college, and she wants everyone to know that, “they’re just such amazing human beings,” and she’s “truly been so inspired” by her time with the Rothfels Lab.

Keir’s kids climbed some giant trees!


Another one of the huge trees Keir saw at the Pinole Valley Watershed


A large mystery bird feather discovered on Keir’s hike


Sraavya shows off her new Harvard gear!




Chaos in the Forest

Chaos in the Forest

A poem by Joyce Chery

Through the chilly months of COVID-19,
I observed the central PA forest and boy, it was serene!
With the branches bare, plant skeletons can finally be seen.

The trees are erect and the branches are straight
Their architecture predetermined by fate
But if you squint, you will soon see
The chaos disturbing the obedient trees

A tangle of thin branches, attach to anything in sight
They wrap, they grasp, they do everything but bite
They twist, they twine
They wrap and they climb

Disturbing the peace, is of course, the woody vines.


Joyce enjoying the chaos in the forest.