Completed in 2011, the Weld Hill Research and Education Building is the heart of scientific research at the Arboretum. Scientists work in its greenhouses, laboratories, growth chambers, and outdoor research plots. Their work in the cutting-edge facilities, in the Arboretum’s landscape, and in fieldwork sites across the globe contributes to greater understanding of the ways plant and environmental science shape the world around us.
The research building is not open to the public, but the outdoor research plots and landscape are viewable.
Robin Hopkins is Assistant Professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. Her lab is based at the Weld Hill Research Building. Listen below to learn about her work.
My name is Robin Hopkins. I’m an Associate Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. My lab is based at the Arnold Arboretum in the Weld Hill Research Building.
My research focuses on understanding how biodiversity is generated and what maintains the diversity that we see all around us. So I’m interested in the evolutionary processes that generate differences between species, and within species, and understanding what forces help maintain those differences to give us the diversity we see.
My lab focuses on studying plants, and we work with this group of wild flowers that’s native to North America called phlox. Many people know about it because they’ve been cultivated to grow in perennial gardens all over the country. We’re interested in how these phlox have diversified. So how and why different species are different, both phenotypically (in the ways that their flowers are formed and the colors of their flowers) and genetically (how they’re different from really closely related species or more distantly related species). Most of our work focuses on a group of these phlox that grow in Texas. We’re really interested in understanding how and why they can co-occur together without reproducing with each other, and this is one of the big challenges in the field that I study. So understanding what keeps species apart when they grow or live together and stops them from reproducing with each other.
My lab is like a lot of academic labs here at Harvard and another research-focused academic institutions. There’s me, I’m a professor, I’m considered the head of the lab, and working with me are full-time researchers. We call them postdoctoral researchers. They’ve earned their PhD and are now getting full time research experience. So I have two postdoctoral researchers in my lab. We also have graduate students in the lab who are earning their PhDs doing independent research. In the case of the students in my lab, they’ve focused their research on studying phlox and understanding aspects of their biology and diversity both genetically and phenotypically.
We also work with a lot of undergraduates here from Harvard, as well as area institutions. So right now, we have undergraduates from Boston University who are working with us. They work in the greenhouses helping with plant care. They work in the labs helping us with our genetic work. We also have a research technician in the lab, and he has gotten his undergraduate degree, he is interested in going on to get a PhD, and is looking to gain more research experience. So he’s working in our lab to help design experiments, work through some of the technical aspects of doing the experiments, and learn how to analyze data.
Most of the labs in universities and at Harvard are based on main campus. And so you’re in the busy world of campus, where there’re lots of undergrads, there’re lots of other faculty and labs, and I think we’re really lucky being out at the Arboretum surrounded by a community obsessed with plants and working with plants in all kinds of different ways. But here, out at the Arboretum, we get a whole huge advantage to being with the crew that works on the grounds every day, being with the librarians and the curators in the herbarium as well in the living collections to learn a different aspect of plant biology that we wouldn’t normally get to interact with, being on campus. I think the smallness of the community at the Arboretum has allowed us to interact with scientists that don’t necessarily ask the same questions we ask, or use the same techniques, and this allows us to broaden the way we think about our questions and actually use new techniques that we normally wouldn’t use in the type of research that we do.
I think one of the great things about being at the Arboretum is that it allows, not just me, but also my students and my postdoctoral researchers to see how the research world, the academic world, fits into a broader world committed to understanding biological diversity. So scientists are sometimes in their ivory towers studying their esoteric research questions about species differences, but the rest of the world out there is also interested in this beautiful biological diversity, in different ways, in either how to cultivate gardens to make them more appealing, beautiful, and healthy for the public, or how to work with elementary school students in understanding the way plants grow and live and our dependence on them. And I think being at the Arboretum gives graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and myself, a real appreciation for where we fit into the broader scheme of loving biodiversity and understanding of our role in maintaining that biological diversity.
I love being at the Arboretum. Physically being in this beautiful space is inspiring. Every day I can look out my window and see the trees, the changing seasons, the incredible work that goes into maintaining this beautiful landscape, and that just gives me joy. I go for runs in the Arboretum and I watch as all of the plants around me change from spring, summer, winter, and it helps me realize that the work that I’m doing in the lab, on these funny little plants that grow in Texas, is really applicable to the world around me. And the same processes that I’m studying are happening right outside my door.
I think the reason I love the Arboretum is because I’m physically in the Arboretum. I also love being in a place that’s used by everybody. The Arboretum is a Boston park. Everybody’s here. I get to see children in strollers. I get to see grandmas with their kids and grandkids. I get to work right outside, right inside of a hill where kids are sledding in the wintertime and running with dogs in the summertime. I think this makes me feel like I’m part of a community that’s much bigger than just the academic community of Harvard.Tap here to read a transcript.