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Secrets of Biodiversity in the South Pacific

BU prof and minority students research species variety in Indonesia

The Diversity Project, led by Biology Assistant Professor Paul Barber, brings minority students to Indonesia to study the region’s marine biodiversity. Click above to watch the slide show.

The tropical waters surrounding Indonesia are home to thousands of fish species, hundreds of corals, and one big mystery: how did this area, known as the coral triangle, become the most diverse marine environment in the world? 

One BU scientist is on the case. Paul Barber, a College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of biology, is using genetics to investigate biodiversity in Indonesia’s waters. At the same time, he is trying to solve another diversity puzzle — namely, how to increase the number of minority students who become marine scientists.

Barber’s dual-pronged initiative, the Diversity Project, began in 2005 and is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through 2009. Every summer, Barber takes a group of underrepresented minority students majoring in science to Indonesia to collect samples of marine life, which they later analyze at BU. The undergraduate participants in the 10-week program are drawn from colleges across the country. Applications for summer 2007 are due on January 15.

“It’s extremely competitive,” says Barber, who took two students to the tropical archipelago the first summer and three this year. He hopes to select four for next summer. Barber believes that hands-on training like that provided by the Indonesia program is vital to bringing more minorities into the sciences. According to a 2004 NSF report, black, Hispanic, and Native American students accounted for only about 16 percent of the master’s or doctoral degrees in biological sciences awarded in 2003.

The Diversity Project’s one BU alum, Martha Muñoz (CAS’07), credits the program with solidifying her interest in evolutionary biology. 

“I had an interest in the field, but I didn’t have a chance to try it firsthand until I worked with [Professor Barber]. Until then, I really had no idea what I could do with my own work,” says Muñoz, who participated in 2005. After earning her degree in biology, she will then depart for Spain to study owl flies while applying for doctoral programs in evolutionary biology.

In addition to the educational objective of encouraging more minority students to become scientists, Barber is pursuing a scientific objective. Diversity on land happens when some physical barrier, such as a river or a mountain range, keeps similar species separate, unable to disperse and mix. But according to conventional wisdom, the marine environment doesn’t have significant barriers to dispersal.

As part of Barber’s investigation into potential “models of speciation” in the coral triangle, students in his summer program, along with Indonesians researchers, collect small tissue samples from 60 to 70 species of fish and invertebrate marine animals from three or four geographic areas. Two weeks of fieldwork are followed by eight weeks in Boston, where students extract DNA from their samples, amplify it, and look for genetic similarities and differences between them and other samples collected in past years.

“Populations of the same species that have very similar genetic compositions occur when there’s a lot of mixing and genetic exchange,” says Barber, explaining that most of this mixing is the result of larvae floating on ocean currents, as opposed to migration by adult animals. The DNA from the Indonesian samples is also examined by BU students in Barber’s course on molecular ecology and evolution. If these analyses turn up significant genetic differences between the same species in different geographic areas, it would indicate that some sort of barrier to dispersal does in fact exist and may have caused some of the region’s biodiversity. “It could be certain aspects of the physical environment, the geology, or the oceanography of the Indonesian archipelago,” says Barber.

These are, as Muñoz puts it, “some of the very big questions in biology — how do species arrive and what are the processes that shape evolutionary history?”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.