An Interview with Erica Tsai, Planning Committee Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008
By Student

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by Samantha H

Erica Tsai works at the Department of Biology at Duke University where she is a PhD candidate.  She studies Beechdrop (Epifagus virginiana) which is a parasitic plant and is especially interested in its relationship with the American Beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) which is its host.

Ms. Tsai created PhyloGeoViz which is a website application for phylogeography visualization.  Also, she is the planning committee chair for Women in Science and Engineering (W.I.S.E.) which is a group from Duke University that sponsors events that bring women (students and teachers) together to share ideas that can change how women are involved in science.  She will be attending the upcoming Science Online ‘09 conference.

Why are you attending this conference?

I’m generally interested in science communication, and I read a lot of blogs, so this is a natural fit. This year I’m also helping to organize the women’s networking event taking place the first night of the conference.

Have you ever attended this conference before? If so, do you have any suggestions to make the most of the experience?

This will be my first time at this conference, but I’m really looking forward to it! I think the key thing about conferences in general is to  not be afraid to talk to new people. Part of the conference experience is to meet people you might otherwise miss and to swap ideas.  It’s normal to feel shy, but I’d challenge you to get out of your comfort zone and introduce yourself to some new friends. Take a coffee break with someone you were just in a session with! Don’t be afraid to tag along with a new friend’s lunch plans! Ask questions and participate! It’s fine to retreat and hang out with your friends too, but make sure you interact with some people you don’t already know.

What are you looking foward to the most in this conference?

The human element is what’s always the most fun about conferences. Seeing who it is behind the writing. I’m looking forward to meeting the people behind the blogs I religiously follow.

I’m also looking forward to the lab visits the first day. I’m currently considering several career options, and it’ll be very helpful to see the types of working environments there are out there.

Are you going to present at the conference? If so, what will your topic be?

I won’t be presenting anything directly but I will be involved with the women’s networking event happening the Friday night of the conference.   I’m part of Duke’s Women in Science and Engineering graduate student group who is co-sponsoring this excellent event. The goal of the event is to bring women in scientific disciplines together to make connections for mentoring, professional collaborations, or social reasons. There will be an appetizer/cocktail hour where participants can mingle and network. And following that we’ll have a guest speaker, Rebecca Skloot, give a keynote address during dinner. Afterwards there will be more networking and local women’s groups will be around giving out information on their events and programs.

On your website, it says you are interested in the Epifagus virginiana. How did you become so interested in that particular plant?

My dissertation research centers on Epifagus. It’s a really cool parasitic plant. That’s right, plants can be parasites too! Epifagus is a plant that taps directly into the roots of beech trees and forms connections with the tree’s xylem and phloem. It gets all of its nutrition from the tree and does not rely on photosynthesis at all. In fact, it’s totally brown (not green at all), its chloroplasts are basically nonfunctional (its thylakoids are misshapen), and a lot of its genes for photosynthesis have evolved into nonfunctional pseudogenes or have been lost completely, so it couldn’t photosynthesize even if it wanted to.

In my project I’m looking at the migration patterns of this parasite and how they relate to those of its host tree. I’m trying to understand what controls a parasite’s colonization of new areas during changes in climate.

What is your favorite part of working in the Department of Biology at Duke University?

The atmosphere in the biology department is so collaborative and friendly that it makes it a great place to be a graduate student. Honestly, the people are great. Folks are always willing to bounce ideas back and forth with you, and they want you to succeed. It also helps to have so many people here interested in the same things I’m interested in: organisms, biogeography, ecology, and evolution.

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