Prof. Robert Reed's lab uses butterfly wing patterns to find genes that cause butterfly mimicry.

Michael Wenye Li / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Robert Reed's lab uses butterfly wing patterns to find genes that cause butterfly mimicry.

February 22, 2018

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | ‘Nature Nut’ Professor Studies Butterflies to Delve Deeper Into Evolution

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Prof. Robert Reed, ecology and evolutionary biology, has “always been kind of a nature nut.” He grew up in a small town in the Mojave Desert, hiking, camping and collecting cacti.

“I didn’t really have confidence that I could or would be able to do well in science,” Reed said. “I wasn’t a great high school student … I ended up going to community college for three years.”

When Reed met another student at the college who wanted to transfer to a “big university” to study genetics, it inspired Reed to try taking some science classes.

“That really blew my mind, to actually know somebody who would actually have the confidence to do genetics,” he said. “I ended up ace-ing all my [science] classes, and found out that not only was I good at it but that it was actually really fun.”

Reed transferred to the University of California, Berkeley and said that it was “incredible.” After taking an entomology class, Reed said he “knew immediately” that he wanted to study insects.

“I ended up working in the lab of the professor who taught that class doing butterfly systematics and I’ve been working on butterflies ever since,” he said.

Reed described the focus of his research as “getting at a lot of deeper evolutionary questions about where newness comes from in evolution.” He uses butterflies as a model system to understand what kind of genetic changes will cause complex new traits to appear and evolve.

“I work almost exclusively on butterfly wing patterns,” he said. “Part of my motivation is aesthetic. Butterfly wing patterns and insects in general are just strange and beautiful things that I’m attracted to and I’ve always been interested in where new traits come from.”

Reed explained the significance of his lab’s findings regarding mimicry.

“Our lab’s pretty well known for playing a key role in finding the genes that cause butterfly mimicry,” he said. “Turns out that there’s a relatively small number of genes that are required to make a very complex color pattern. If you look in different species over evolutionary history it’s always the same handful of genes, like three or four of them, that seem to drive evolution over and over and over again.”

The reoccurrence of the same small number of genes that have been found to be driving evolution is “surprising,” Reed said, “because it suggests that there is a certain level of predictability in evolution.”

Reed said getting students to think critically is an “exciting challenge” in teaching. “A lot of students come from high school prepared to learn and memorize facts, especially in science,” he said. “But really what science is all about is asking questions and understanding how to go about answering questions … that’s your skill as a scientist, thinking critically and asking questions.”

Reed advised prospective scientists to “follow [their] heart.”

“Do what makes you the most excited, what you’re passionate about,” he said. “Any plant or animal or organism has a story to tell that’s important. It needs a person with passion to hear that question and to bring it out and to present it to the world. And that’s how you could be like me and devote your whole career to a butterfly — it has millions of years of stories to tell.”

Previously Reed has taught an introductory evolutionary biology class; however, next semester Reed will teach a new undergraduate field course titled Tropical Field Entomology, or ENTOM 3340.

ENTOM 3340 will be taught in the second half of the fall semester providing students with the opportunity to learn about tropical insect biology. The class will be followed by a two week field trip during winter break to Costa Rica where students will undertake research projects. The first half of the following spring semester, students will write up their research, analyze data and give presentations.

“I’m so excited about it,” Reed said. “There are few things better in life than looking at bugs in the jungle … it’s one of the best things you can do with your time.”