Ryan Fuller uses molecular techniques to understand speciation in genus Rhododendron

A 4th-year CEB student, Ryan Fuller's research combines botany, genetics, and evolution

Ryan Fuller is a 4th year PhD candidate in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology whose work combines aspects of botany, genetics, and evolution. He received a Master’s of Science from the University of Northern Colorado (2015) where he was introduced to plant research and quickly fell in love with applied population genetics. Now at the University of Chicago, he aims to use molecular techniques to better understand evolution and speciation within the plant genus Rhododendron, a charismatic and prominent element of the North Temperate flora. Specifically, his research focuses on the alpine subsection of Rhododendron known as Lapponica. By collecting leaf tissue samples from natural Lapponica populations and sourcing material from living and museum collections, he hopes to combine genetic data with physical traits to answer questions about evolutionary history and species identification.

With support from his CEB advisors Drs. Richard Ree and Andrew Hipp and multiple collaborators around the world, Ryan has developed a phylogeny of Lapponica using DNA sequence data. Early results suggest that some of the supposed “species” are actually the products of hybridization events or phenotypic plasticity. What’s more is that several samples display higher rates of genome duplication (polyploidy) than previously expected. These findings beg new questions: (1) How does polyploidy impact diversification within Lapponica and other closely related groups and (2) can its origins be traced? These problems are the focal points of Ryan’s dissertation work and may hold answers that dramatically reshape our understanding of evolution within Rhododendron.

With funding from the Committee on Evolutionary Biology and a Mini-ARTS award from the Society of Systematic Biologists, he has traveled abroad to collect samples and learn from taxonomic experts. Locations include the Hengduan Mountains in China—a location brimming with over 500 species of Rhododendron, and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland--home to one of the largest collections of both living and preserved Rhododendron in the world. As a CEB student, Ryan believes his access to institutions such as the Field Museum and the Morton Arboretum have been instrumental to his professional development. In the future, he hopes to bring his University of Chicago training to his own lab where he can effectively mentor and inspire graduate and undergraduate students.