Office of Undergraduate Research

Gabriela Castillo '23

Portrait of Gabriela Castillo.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Gabriela Castillo (she/her) is a STRONG scholar majoring in Biology and Theater. She conducts mentored research under Professor Mike Moore. Her project is titled “4 in 1: Uncovering Hidden Species within Tiquilia palmeri". 

Please describe your project: 

I am currently doing research on two different groups of plants. One of these groups is native Hawaiian plants known as Schiedea and there are 34 total species. My research with these plants required me to construct DNA libraries so we can better understand these plants and their relationships to one another. In addition to these Hawaiian plants, I work with the species Tiquilia palmeri which grow in the Sonoran Desert. My research with T. palmeri is centered around finding hidden species within it that have been overlooked or gone unnoticed by botanists in the past. By conducting phylogenetic trees, I am able to see how exactly all the plants considered to be T. palmeri are truly connected and how different they actually are from one another. Currently, I’m working to gather data about the physical characteristics of these plants such as sepal length or leaf size.

Please include a brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

My research is centered on understanding the genetics of different plant species and how these plants are connected to one another. For the Hawaiian plants I work with, the connections being looked at are across 34 different species. For Tiquilia palmeri, the connections I’m looking at are within that single species, or what’s currently considered to be a single species.

Why is your research important? 

My research’s main goal is conservation. It allows us to better understand what plants are out there and how those plants are all related to ensuring that they don’t go unnoticed or even, extinct. Once we learn as much as we can about these plants it opens the door for other discoveries to be made ranging from animals we may or may not know of that interact with the plant or possible usages for the plant in other fields. 

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

In regards to my research with Tiquilia palmeri, I have been able to conclude that this is not actually one species but it is likely four different species. But, I am still working to collect data about the physical characteristics of these plants to support my DNA evidence. 

In what ways have you showcased your research?

I presented my research at the virtual Botany Conference during the summer of 2020.

How did you get involved in research? 

The summer before my freshman year, I was lucky enough to join Oberlin’s STRONG program which allowed me to get into a lab and do research. I knew people typically did research in college and I wanted to know what exactly that was like, which is why I originally applied for this program. Clearly, the experience I had was quite positive given that I am still working in the lab I was assigned during STRONG and am enjoying every minute of it.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

My favorite part of the research process is being able to learn something new every day. Whether it be a new technique or something new about the plants I’m working with, I really enjoy knowing that I am constantly getting something out of my research. Even if the results we get are less than ideal one day, I know I still learned something from the experience.

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher? 

Working with my research mentor has made me far more confident in my decisions. My research mentor trusts me to problem solve and work through difficult procedures and DNA sequences on my own and knowing this pushes me to make the scarier decisions that more often than not have been the right decision.