Meet Our Interns

Rasheen Allen: A biology major at Manhattan College where botanical coursework is limited, Rasheen came to the Garden to expand his knowledge about plants. As an intern in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium under the direction of Dr. Jacquelyn Kallunki, Rasheen had the opportunity to participate in the management of the Steere Herbarium, a collection of over 7.3 million accessions of plants and fungi. The Steere Herbarium, the largest in the Americas (fourth largest in the world), is among the most active in terms of use by scientists. Through his internship, Rasheen learned first-hand about the world’s botanical community and the importance of collections as a primary source for its research materials. Focusing on ferns, he authored and illustrated the Herbarium’s introduction to ferns Web page, available here. For his work at the Garden, Rasheen received Manhattan College credit. He now serves as the Coordinator of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.

Salvatore De Santis: A biology (pre-med) major at Boston College, Salvatore had little exposure to plants in his coursework and wanted to expand his knowledge. He came to the Garden to intern on the large project to electronically catalog the North American collections of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) held in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium (approximately 200,000 specimens). The bryophyte collections at the Garden are the largest in the Western Hemisphere, and Salvatore’s work will help to make information about them electronically available for preparation of the bryophyte volume of the multi-institutional Flora of North America. Focusing in on another plant group—lichens—Salvatore authored and illustrated the Herbarium’s introduction to lichens Web page, available here. For his work at the Garden, Salvatore received credit from Boston College, where his internship experience helped him to secure a job managing and developing content for one of the school’s Web sites.

Molly Edwards: Molly is working toward her undergraduate degree in biology with plant sciences from Cornell University. She credits her many earlier school vacations spent photographing in the Garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory with spurring her interest in plants for their own sake. During her internship at the Garden, she learned first-hand the importance of herbarium specimens as vouchers for scientific research. Under the guidance of Dr. Robert Naczi, her morphological measurements from specimens of three species of sedges (genus Carex) are helping to determine if there is enough difference across the complex to consider them separate species. Molly plans to continue her research on Carex with Dr. Naczi while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Cornell.

James Fleming*: Collectors in the field record the location of each plant they find of a certain species, and this data becomes part of the label information for herbarium specimens. In recent years, free and open access to herbarium data has become available electronically, through initiatives such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and the Garden’s C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium. This electronic specimen data, in turn, becomes available for powerful Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analyses to identify priority species and places for conservation. Currently an undergraduate at Columbia University studying sustainable development and economics, James is interning in the Garden’s GIS Lab on the Threatened and Endangered Plants of Puerto Rico project. Working with GIS Program Manager Hannah Stevens and Drs. Holly Porter-Morgan and James Miller, he is using free-access herbarium occurrence records and GIS analyses to evaluate the 2,070 native and endemic plant species of Puerto Rico for risk of extinction.

Micah Gensler*: Micah, an undergraduate geography major at Clark University, is also interning on the Threatened and Endangered Plants of Puerto Rico project in the Garden’s GIS Lab. His work to help evaluate the 2,070 native and endemic plant species of Puerto Rico for risk of extinction involves several steps. For each species, how widespread or restricted its distribution is has to be determined from herbarium records. For restricted species, all available specimen data from the Starr Virtual Herbarium and GBIF has to be downloaded and mapped. Using GIS and modified IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) spatial criteria, extent of occurrence is then calculated. Finally, all 2,070 species are grouped into general conservation threat categories (IUCN EOO thresholds): threatened; possibly threatened; not threatened.

*Interns James Fleming and Micah Gensler, along with Hannah Stevens and Drs. Holly Porter-Morgan and James Miller, have published the results of this research in Addressing target two of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation by rapidly identifying plants at risk.

Nicholas Hilton: Nicholas attends Fairfield College Preparatory School in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he has always had a keen interest in biological science. In the summers of 2007 and 2008, Nicholas enrolled in the Peddie Summer Science Institute in Hightstown, New Jersey to gain more exposure to genetics and modern molecular biology. In the summer of 2009, he began an internship in the Plant Genomics Program at the Garden. Working with a team directed by Dr. Amy Litt, Nicholas is helping to look at glutamate receptors in plants. Glutamate is a signaling chemical found in the human brain, and it is critical to the function of the human body. The role of recently discovered glutamate receptors in plants is largely unknown.

David Kaiser: The methods of molecular biology have revolutionized the way plant scientists reconstruct the genealogies of plant families and genera. David is interning in the Garden’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, under the direction of Dr. Gregory Plunkett, to learn some of these methods. Scientists today think the plant genus Schefflera (sometimes known as umbrella trees) actually represents an artificial assemblage of five unrelated yet geographically coherent groups. One of these five groups, in turn—the “Melanesian Schefflera”—contains five or six morphological subgroupings. David is helping to analyze DNA sequences of certain Melanesian Schefflera to shed light on the genealogy and number of its subgroups. Besides interning at the Garden, David is working on his undergraduate degree in biology and society (Healthcare Studies) in the School of Human Ecology at Cornell University.

Flávio Obermuller: Flávio is a postmaster’s degree intern from the Universidade Federal do Acre in Amazonian Brazil, where his thesis focused on the impacts of logging on populations of orchids and other epiphytes (plants that use other plants for support while deriving moisture from the air). At the Garden, he is helping Dr. Douglas Daly to coordinate a large consortium project to rescue information about plant diversity in Southwestern Amazonia. Information from diverse sources will be checked for accuracy, converted to a standard format, and integrated so that comprehensive data can be brought to bear on pressing issues of forest management and conservation in the region. Flávio is also learning laboratory techniques to clear, stain, and digitally photograph the leaves of Acre’s timber tree species, in order to prepare an identification atlas based on leaf vein patterns. In addition to the atlas, Flávio’s internship with Dr. Daly will result in several other joint publications.

Raquel Peralta: Raquel, a native of Washington Heights, Manhattan, is the daughter of a Dominican father and Puerto Rican/Cuban mother. She grew up hearing about conditions such as mal de ojo (“evil eye”) and drinking herbal jarabes (household remedies) when she had gripe (flu). After receiving her Master’s Degree in Health Science from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Raquel was accepted to Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in the Bronx. Her personal goal as a physician is to incorporate knowledge of traditional health practices with Western medicine. Raquel’s internship at the Garden with Dr. Ina Vandebroek is focused on analyzing plants commonly used for self-medication by Latino communities.

Christian Schorn: An undergraduate at Connecticut College studying environmental studies and botany, Christian interned on the Genomics of Comparative Seed Evolution Project under the guidance of Dr. Dennis Stevenson. This collaborative project among the Garden, New York University, the American Museum of Natural History, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is working to identify key genes involved in the evolutionary development of the seed and shed light on gene-to-structure relationships in plant tissues. Christian located and collected plant tissues of interest to the project from the Garden's extensive living collections. He subsequently extracted genetic material from these tissues and helped to analyze the tissues’ structural elements. Key data from Christian’s work is being shared among all institutional collaborators in the Seed Evolution Project. Christian hopes to continue working with plants in the context of urban forestry and ecology after attaining his undergraduate degrees.

Gillian Stevens: Gillian came to the Garden to intern in the multidisciplinary Micronesia project, which is focused on investigating biodiversity and its relationship to human health in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau. Working with Information Manager Nieve Shere, under the direction of Dr. Michael Balick, Gillian verified scientific names for 33 known plants used as local medicines on the island of Palau. Using online medical and biology databases, she conducted literature searches for pharmacological activity and toxicity data on all of the species. The results of Gillian’s research are being incorporated into a primary healthcare manual for use by doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers in Palau. Gillian holds an M.S. in Human Physiology from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and is currently applying to medical school.

Elisa Suganuma: Elisa, granddaughter of Japanese emigrants to Brazil, is a Ph.D. student at Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana in Brazil, where her research is focused on DNA barcoding the tree species of the Atlantic forest south of Bahia. The black and white “barcode” label that is present on virtually all commercial products today was developed as the “universal product code system.” In the same manner, a short segment of DNA sequence composed of varying patterns of A,C,G,T nucleotides (a DNA barcode) should be able to identify different species of organisms from one another. At the Garden, Elisa is interning with Dr. Damon Little and research botanist Daniel Atha to DNA barcode the flora of the northeastern United States and adjacent Canada as part of the international treeBOL (tree DNA barcode of life) project. Elisa is already co-author of an abstract about the treeBOL project and will be co-author on the project’s final paper.