Biology department hosts, Grace Kimball Lecture Series: Dr. W. John Kress: “Beyond the Tree of Life: Valuing Museum Collections in the Age of Biodiversity”

Toni Pennello, Staff Writer

On April 21, Dr. W. John Kress delivered a lecture on the topic “Beyond the Tree of Life: Valuing Museum Collections in the Age of Biodiversity,” as part of the Grace Kimball Lecture Series.

Kress is the director for Science in the Grand Challenges Consortium at the Smithsonian, as well as a distinguished scientist and curator with the Department of Botany at the National Museum of History. He is well known for his work with DNA barcoding.

Students attended the lecture for extra credit in their biology classes as well as for the knowledge it would provide them.

“I’m here for the experience,” said Alexis Morgan, a sophomore biology major. “This is the biggest lecture that the bio department hosts.”

Madison Lawrence, a freshman biochemistry major, admitted that she attended the lecture mostly for extra credit. “There’s gonna be a bonus question on Dr. Klemow’s exam,” Lawrence said.

At the lecture, Kress discussed the importance of museum collections of biological specimens. “The collections are used primarily to understand how the world works,” Kress said.

He explained that there are an estimated 3 billion biological collections worldwide, with old and new specimens.

“We can tell a lot about how things have changed since these specimen were collected until today,” Kress explained.

The collections are also used to digitize specimens for global study, image recognition technology, and DNA barcoding.

Kress was involved in the development of an app called “leafsnap,” which uses image recognition technology to act as a kind of advanced field guide. The app is now used worldwide, and will provide information about the migration of tree species as a result of climate change.

Over the last three years, the app has already shown some tree species migrating north, and Kress anticipates a lot more clear data to be provided over the coming years.

DNA barcoding is defined as “a short universal gene sequence taken from a standardized portion of the genome used to identify species,” according to Kress’s powerpoint.

The process is used to identify species of plants that are otherwise difficult to recognize, as well as to identify roots of plants which are usually indistinguishable.

Kress received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1975, and his Ph.D. from Duke University in 1981. His fields of study include tropical biology, ethnobotany, evolution, pollination ecology, and plant systematics.

He has written over 150 popular scientific papers, and published several books.  He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has been an Adjunct Professor of Biology at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Yunnan.