PeerJ Award Winners at the Natural History Museum Student Conference

The Annual NHM Student Conference, which has been held at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM), for the past 15 years, is a unique opportunity for graduate students affiliated with the NHM to come together and share their research, spanning Life and Earth Sciences to history of science, with their fellow students and museum staff. This year, the conference was run in a hybrid format for the very first time! While we could not all be there in-person, we still had a packed programme with a total of 15 oral presentations and 27 posters, multiple workshops and two distinguished keynote addresses from Prof. Yadvinder Malhi and Ella Al-Shamahi.

Ana Serra Silva, Natural History Museum Student’s Association


Maria Zicos PhD Candidate at Queen Mary University of London and the Natural History Museum. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I did my Undergraduate and Masters at the University of St Andrews, before joining the London NERC DTP to study population histories of extant and extinct mammals. My main research interests are evolution, ecology and palaeoecology – that is the past biology of a species and its relationships with the environment(s) it lived in.

What first interested you in this field of research?

I am fascinated by the idea that animal species have experienced climatic and environmental changes in the past to get to where they are now, and that what we know of them through modern field studies might only represent a biased idea of what conditions they can endure. This is especially relevant when considering predictions of effects of climate change and habitat degradation!

You won the Best Presentation award at the conference, can you briefly explain the research you presented?

I presented my research on extinct sloth Mylodon darwinii at a locality in Patagonia. I am currently investigating this species’ population history at the cave and was showing some results on radiocarbon dates and mitochondrial genomes.

How did you find the virtual conference experience?

I thought the virtual experience was lovely – I wish I could have attended in person, but it was still great to see many familiar faces!

What are your next steps? How will you continue to build on this research?

My next steps for this research is the generation of more, and better quality, genetic data: new mitochondrial genomes are being generated through hybridisation capture methods,  and a few samples are being sequenced for nuclear genomes, in order to have more power to reconstruct the recent past of this population.


Annabelle de Vries PhD Student at the University of Warwick and the Natural History Museum London. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I studied at Leiden University (the Netherlands) where I obtained my BSc Biology and MSc Biology: Evolution, Biodiversity and Conservation. During my masters I worked on two internships, one in arctic plant trait ecology on Svalbard, and the second at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London on seed size evolution and biogeography of palms. Both projects reflect my interest in plant diversity and evolution, working in the field and with herbarium collections.

What first interested you in this field of research?

My interest in biology started with nature documentaries and collecting interesting shells, leaves or fossils. However, it was during my undergraduate when we visited the herbarium at Naturalis Leiden, that I became certain this was what I wanted to work on. It is amazing how much plant diversity can be captured in a herbarium, with plant collections from all over the world spanning centuries in time. During my PhD I work with plant material from 17th century herbarium books of the Sloane Herbarium collection at the Natural History Museum, London. These collections are beautiful, and it is great to flick through them and discover plants collected throughout the world.

You won the Best Poster award at the conference, can you briefly explain the research you presented?

At the conference I presented a poster with an overview of my PhD project on oceanic island museomics. Museomics is the research done using genomic data from museum collections. In my case this is the plant genus Trochetiopsis, endemic to the island of St Helena. This island is interesting as it highlights classic examples of evolutionary processes such as adaptive radiation, has historical records of human impact, and there is a history of botanical collecting spanning the last three centuries. The genus Trochetiopsis consists of three species, of which two are extinct in the wild due to the wood used as timber by humans.

T. erythroxylon (Sloane herbarium collection)

T. ebenus in flower







The collections of Trochetiopsis spanning 320 years, allows us to look closer at these extinction events and the change in genetic diversity over time. This could give us more understanding on how human impact has affected island biodiversity patterns and question how robust islands are as model system for studying evolution.

How was it being back at an in-person (partly virtual) conference?

The NHM Student Conference is one of my favourite conferences. It is great to see how excited researchers are about their work, and learning about the projects of others. The range in research topics is endless and the presenters make sure that everyone can understand their work. I really enjoyed attending in-person again, and being able to chat more easily with colleagues, especially since I had not seen some of them for over a year.

The student committee this year arranged for a hybrid conference, meaning it was both in-person and virtual. We could decide to attend virtual or in-person with keeping to the Covid-restrictions. The committee also arranged tours through the museum collections, library and archives or the gardens. This was in smaller groups which made the distancing easier. They also arranged for two exceptional keynote speakers to inspire us even more.

What are your next steps? How will you continue to build on this research?

I am currently in the second year of my PhD and working on sequencing the material. With the first sequencing data, I can confirm whether the DNA we obtained is truly Trochetiopsis or contaminated. This contamination can be from curators who worked with the material, the animal glue the plant specimen was attached to the paper with, other plants, or from other organism that might live on a leaf.

If the sequences are confirmed Trochetiopsis, I will prepare them for analysis. During the analysis I hope to get more understanding of the relation between the three Trochetiopsis species, how the genus relates to its sister genera, and how the genetic diversity changed over time for each species.


Cover image: Tomas Stanek (instagram/tms.stnk1)

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