Evolutionary Road

Andrea Berardi, a second-year Ph.D. student in biology, dedicates herself to researching plants and teaching students, cultivating growth in both worlds.

By Amy Woolard (English ’94, Law ’08)
Labeled as Arts & Sciences Magazine
Andrea Berardi

Andrea Berardi cultivates a crop of Silene vulgaris in the biology department greenhouse.
Photo by Dan Addison

The names sound like fictional lands: Weltwischia, Silene vulgaris, Silene latifolia, Mirabilis jalapa. And indeed, within the humid atmosphere of the Biology Department’s greenhouse, small plots of plants are positioned on tables and in pots like tiny countries—each with its own culture, customs, and laws.

Andrea Berardi, a second-year Ph.D. student in the College and Graduate School’s biology program, reigns sovereign in this environment. She casually detangles and grooms the stems and leaves of a batch of Silene vulgaris (Moench) Garcke, her current focus. Where some people might see white flowers on a weed, Berardi sees both beauty and unanswered questions.

As an evolutionary biologist, Berardi is studying the ways in which the plant species S. vulgaris (also known as “bladder campion” or “maiden’s tears”) evolved over time. Her research focuses on the ways flavonoids (plant pigments) can serve different purposes: One might be responsible for floral color, while another provides a defense mechanism against herbivores and disease, and still another produces the necessary “sunscreen” for the plant’s survival.

The Research

The Silene species that Berardi studies is thought to have made its way across the Atlantic in ships during the late 1800s, the seeds traveling in the soil or water stored within keels as ballast. After the plant arrived in North America, however, its consistency began to change, becoming “weedier and
larger,” Berardi says, and it began to produce more seeds in its new environment. As the species moved into different climates and locations, Berardi speculates that its metabolism shifted in order to adapt. “If certain metabolic pathways are responsible for, say, color, defense, and sunscreen,” she says, “then those pathways might change as the plant needs more or less of any one of those qualities.” For example, if the plant moves higher in elevation, and therefore closer to the sun, it might need more sunscreen, which, in turn, might affect the flavonoids it is able to generate in order to produce and maintain plant defense or floral color.

“It’s color variation that interests me the most,” Berardi says. She is intrigued as to why certain plants keep producing multiple color variations such as pinks and whites when their pollinators only prefer the pinks.

Berardi selected U.Va.’s doctoral program because its biologists were asking “broad ecological and evolutionary questions” (and the warm climate offered promise of “a greater selection of plants to research”). She chose to work with biology professor and department chair Doug Taylor, known for his work in plant genetics.

Teaching

In the spring of 2009, her second semester at U.Va., Berardi taught “Introduction to Biology Laboratory” to undergraduates, focusing on experimental research and lab and field techniques. It was in that class
that Dana Lapato (Biology ’12) met Berardi and appreciated her “happy personality” and “obvious commitment to her work.” Lapato approached her about possible research opportunities, and Berardi said yes. “If you’re a college student interested in biology,” Berardi says, “you should definitely try to do research first.”

Lapato agrees: “As an undergraduate, the best thing I can do to learn, if I want to be a researcher, is [gain] hands-on experience. Andrea was extremely proactive in getting me into the lab setting. Not only did she teach me lab techniques, but she also made sure that I knew everyone in the lab.”

Berardi and Lapato demonstrate how the typical academic hierarchies often dissolve in a research setting. They are now collaborating on a project with another graduate student from a lab across the hall
from Taylor’s.

Lapato, as a second-year undergraduate, is already following in the footsteps of her graduate mentor, even down to the qualities she values most in a program. “Andrea works hard, helps out wherever and whenever she can, and is just a very kind and approachable person. And those kinds—the happy and involved—are what attract other students to go to universities. They see how much other people love their work and realize that the school must be a great environment,” says Lapato.

On Location

The biology program gives its graduate students fellowships and teaching assistantships that allow them to focus on research without having to take on outside employment. Plant growth cycles, however, do not conveniently coincide with the academic year, so most students also seek opportunities to continue their research work throughout the summer months.

Berardi spent a summer at the Biology Department’s Mountain Lake Biological Station, a research and teaching facility located on 600 acres in southwestern Virginia. She explains that summers at Mountain Lake are not only valuable to graduate students for completing fieldwork, but they also bring students and more experienced scientists physically closer to their subjects.

“As a graduate student, you’re often buried so deep in your work that you don’t stop to look around. Mountain Lake, in a great way, makes you look up and appreciate what you’re doing on a different level,”
Berardi says.

While the Mountain Lake Station is handy if you’re in Virginia, plant biologists must often meet their subjects where they live to garner the most helpful research. For Berardi, so far, that has meant Europe—specifically, an Alpine village in Guarda, Switzerland, in the summer of 2009. With funding from the Graduate School’s Huskey Travel Award, she was able to conduct comparative research on the Silene
plants as they have evolved in North American and European locales.

“Appalachia provides a certain level of elevation to test the Silene plants,” Berardi says with a slight smile, “but the Alps give me just a little bit more of an altitudinal gradient.”

Because the European research plots are far from home and unable to be observed (or protected) on a regular basis, Berardi had to create a multitude of replicate plots to ensure that she would have enough
meaningful data. Though she admits it wasn’t funny at the time, she laughs as she recounts the story of one of professor Taylor’s visits to his Oxford, England, site. As he approached the plots, he realized
that sheep had circumvented the protective barriers and were munching on his research.

While the European destinations are an exciting ancillary benefit to research, the journey is not so simple. Funding, Berardi notes, is the key ingredient in turning interest into opportunity. She admits that monetary grants, both inside and outside of the University, can be plentiful but are always extremely competitive. Graduate biology students at U.Va. must often find their own funding streams or collaborate with professors or peers on grant applications.

Future Growth

Berardi still has several years’ worth of research and writing ahead of her before achieving her Ph.D. Though the substance of her research may shift, Berardi is nearly certain that she will stay in academia, as both a teacher and researcher. She finds her daily interactions with other students and professors to be critical to her continued work. “I enjoy the curiosity that undergraduates show, and their questions
and ideas have sparked elements of my own research, as well.”

In the meantime, Berardi has her sights set on greener pastures; if she’s able to secure the funding, she hopes to travel back to the Alps this summer to continue her research on the Silene plants.