Temple students, professor research plant sustainability

The Spigler Lab team researches plant life on campus and throughout Philadelphia.

Rachel Spigler, a biology professor, runs the Spigler Lab, which allows students to research the sustainability of plantlife. | COURTESY / ADAM ZAJAC

Roasting coffee. Growing psychedelics. Eating chocolate. 

These are some of the ways humans interact with plants on a daily basis — sometimes without even realizing it. 

The Spigler Lab, run by Temple University biology professor Rachel Spigler, examines the evolutionary ecology of plant reproduction and the ways people utilize plants. To do so, a team of seven undergraduate and graduate students conduct research in the lab and the forest areas in Philadelphia and surrounding places like Harrisburg, West Chester and Lancaster.

“I just got so fascinated by how reliant humans are on plants, so I started to geek out on plants,” said Spigler, who first became interested in the topic after taking a course on human-plant interactions at Rutgers University. 

“I just fundamentally want to understand the world and why it is the way it is,” she added.

Spigler’s undergraduate students are currently analyzing whether plants get the pollen they need for reproduction by using microscopes to count the pollen grains on stigmas, the sticky part of flowers where seeds germinate. 

The team also grows inbred plants, meaning plants produced from the same genetics, indoors before moving them into the natural environment to determine whether inbreeding causes populations to grow or go extinct. 

Doctoral biology student Gerard Smith joined the Spigler Lab in 2017 as a researcher. Last summer, he observed changes in interactions among pollinators in a butterfly land preserve and is now processing thousands of hours of video footage he collected of their behavior.

Smith said the lab’s research applies to other areas, like technology and website traffic. 

“It’s something that is a network of people interacting with websites, and you tend to see the same pattern that you would in a plant-pollinator community,” he added. 

The lab, which launched in 2013, is located in the Biology-Life Sciences Building. The space doesn’t have a greenhouse, so lab plants are housed in growth chambers where students transplant and measure them. 

Students study thousands of plants and measure aspects like how many flowers are open on a given day, flowering rates and sizes, flower colors and life spans, the rates of pollen deposition and flowers’ self-pollination abilities, Spigler said. They also count seeds to estimate plants’ fitness levels.

Spigler’s goal is to understand factors that lead to healthy plant populations which can sustain themselves, and others that cause populations to decline. She also wants to understand plant development through natural selection, or how plants adapt to changing environments. 

Her work with inbred plant populations tackles these questions in fragmented habitats, meaning larger environments damaged by humans. These habitats threaten the plants’ genetic varieties, increasing inbreeding. Through their research, lab participants study whether these inbred populations can survive. 

Spigler is a tenure-track professor, which requires her to start a research project. She created her lab with the idea of working on local field sites so undergraduate students could get hands-on experience — something she said she didn’t have in college. 

“I always wanted that experience,” Spigler said. “I enjoy giving it to other students and having them participate in the lab.” 

Senior biology major Paige Pammer worked at the lab from May 2017 to January 2018. She said the experience encouraged her to pursue upper-level ecology and evolution courses because Spigler made science engaging. 

“In science, a lot of times you’re bogged down by the old, white guy,” Pammer said. “[Spigler] is young, she’s cool, she’s fun. She’s excited about what she does, she pushes you to be the best you can be.”

Though much of the research is small-scale, Spigler stresses the importance of plants in everyday life as the primary producers of food, fuel and fibers. 

“A lot of people want to know why I would devote my life to studying plants when I could be studying important diseases, which is also really important,” Spigler said. “But for me, it’s because I’m interested and driven by how the world works.” 

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