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Rooted in biology

Princeton woman wins grant to track plant evolution

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Posted: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 12:00 am

Every time Genevieve Walden drives through Devil’s Slide she notices a particular herb nestled on the slopes. Members of the plant’s family – the genus Phacelia – are native to western North America and flourish in parts of South America. Walden wants to know why.

“The question is, how did they get to South America, and how did they develop, compared to their North American counterparts?” she says.

As a large part of earning a master’s degree in biology at San Francisco State University, the Princeton resident is piecing together a comprehensive family tree of the estimated 200 species of phacelia. Gathering and analyzing the plant specimens is Walden’s professional passion, but the task is more than she can handle before she graduates this year.

Luckily, the grad student won a plush fellowship with the National Science Foundation in May, allowing her to pursue the project for three more years. The fellowship covers her lab fees and a chunk of tuition for a Ph.D. program, and also provides her an annual $30,000 stipend.

“It will make possible all the research I want to do. It’s truly amazing. It makes possible two years of my doctorate program. It’s a phenomenal opportunity,” she said, adding that she expects the first check to arrive in her mailbox this month.

Google founder Sergey Brin and co-author of “Freakonomics” Steven Levitt are among past fellows.

Walden studies under Dr. Robert Patterson, a biology professor at SFSU heading up studies of the phacelia family. A master’s student at a state school winning the fellowship is “very, very rare,” he says.

“Most go to Ph.D. students,” he added. “But somehow she stood out.”

With the phacelia project, Walden hopes to shed light on the evolutionary relationships of the various species in the family and use her findings to advance conservation efforts.

“I want to use the data to protect (the family) and share that data with a broader audience of people on nature walks, in classrooms, and other people studying it as an endangered species. … Hopefully a more accurate data set would be useful for management,” she said.

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