Guest Post: What Your Teaching Assistant Wants You to Learn


Guest Post: What Your Teaching Assistant Wants You to Learn

This guest post is by Jacob Landis, a Grad In The Lab, who shares his perspective as a teaching assistant to undergrads in a lab course.

Molecular phylogenetics is used in a wide array of studies including those focused on plant systematics, diversity of birds, and tracking infectious diseases, just to name a few. Recently, we decided to incorporate a module for molecular phylogenetics into an undergraduate introductory lab class to expose students to practices done in some research labs.

What I like to do in my lab classes is to teach practical skills that students can take with them, and hopefully build upon once they get into a research lab.

The implementation of this module includes downloading published sequences of a known chloroplast gene from Genbank, creating an alignment of the sequences, and analyzing them with different methods including parsimony and maximum-likelihood. The full implementation of this module also includes looking at and scoring flower characters (such as flower size, color, and orientation) to see how they evolve across the tree and in the presence of different selective forces of different known pollinators.

Most students seem to enjoy this lab since it is not a cookie-cutter exercise; in fact, the flower traits they select have a real impact on the final results. Each group of students usually picks three to five floral characters to investigate, but given a standard laboratory classroom setting, they could select ten to fifteen characters to easily score, resulting in no two groups being identical.

Even though we do this module during the plants section, I emphasize that this can be done in a variety of fields. For example, I often ask my students, “Where do housecats come from?” I point out that although most might initially think lions, tigers, lynx, or another large feline, the only way to know for certain is to do a phylogenetic analysis to determine which wild ancestor is most closely related to the domestic house cat (this has been done). In addition, I mention that I know several colleagues who study coloration and mating behavior of reptiles--which may interest those who are not so interested in fuzzy mammals. And how does one determine how and when certain traits arise? You guessed it, using phylogenetics. Lastly, I like to bring up that viruses push the boundaries to what is classified as a living organism, but to determine the spread of viruses and diseases researchers use the same phylogenetic techniques.

My students may not remember when or where they first learned certain lab skills, but if it helps get them to where they want to be then I consider that a successful class.

Jacob Landis is a flower evolutionary development research scientist and current PhD Candidate. In addition to his current field, he has participated in research in multiple fields including fish population genetics, fish mating behavior, earthworm systematics, and plant systematics. He has mentored ten undergraduate students in the research lab and was a recipient of a University of Florida Graduate Student Mentoring Award in 2014. Several of his mentees have given poster presentations at national meetings and being co-authors on papers. Jacob can be reached at jblandis(at)