Working out the Bugs

Working out the Bugs

Rutgers Scholars Organize Groundbreaking Conference on Insect Evolution


A symposium on evolutionary divergence time will focus on insects.
Blame it on Hollywood that the image of scientists conferring on a thorny research problem generally conjures up white-haired men in lab coats laboring over beakers and Bunsen burners.

But don’t suggest that picture to Jessica Thomas and Jessica Ware, two Rutgers scholars who have organized what is thought to be the first regional conference on divergence time estimation as it relates to arthropods – invertebrate animals such as insects.

Divergence time estimation is frontier science and an exciting area for researchers who are more closely pinpointing the evolution of various species, calculating when an organism of one type splits and two related but different organisms evolve. Until recently, most of this work was done with vertebrates; Thomas and Ware want to focus more attention on arthropods, particularly insects, because of the biodiversity and ecological and economic importance they represent.

The conference takes place January 8, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., at the Rutgers Student Center, 126 College Avenue.

The scholars have lined up nearly two dozen speakers with expertise in arthropod groups, insect fossils, and dating methodologies. The speakers will present their research during this one-day conference with the hope that it will spark lively conversation and  collaboration.

So far, more than 80 scholars, many of whom are early-career scientists, have signed up for the conference. Of the presenters, six are women (three are named Jessica). The strong participation of women scientists had an added benefit: support from Rutgers’ Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering and Math, an active and high profile group at Rutgers.

Jessica Thomas is a native of the United Kingdom who holds a postdoctoral research position in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS). She is a recipient of the John Maynard Smith Scholarship for Evolutionary Biology and holds a doctorate from the University of Sussex in England and the Australian National University in Canberra. Jessica Ware is a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow with the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She pursued her doctorate in the SEBS’ Department of Entomology and recently received an appointment as an assistant professor with Rutgers-Newark beginning in September.

The two attended a conference of the Eastern Branch of the Entomological Society of America in March 2009. At lunch they began discussing the field of molecular and fossil dating, lamenting that there were no organized meetings on the topic.

Upon their return to Rutgers, Thomas and Ware enlisted the support of their department chairs and key faculty, their young scientist colleagues, SEBS Executive Dean Robert Goodman, and other key players to organize the Northeastern Symposium on Evolutionary Divergence Time.

The conference is sponsored by the Office of the Executive Dean of Rutgers’ School of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources, Department of Entomology, and the Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering and Math.

Admission is free, but registration is strongly urged: Click here to preregister and get more information.