Thais Vasconcelos. Photo courtesy: Thais Vasconcelos.

"I was super excited with the opportunity to work at the university for several reasons,” said new Assistant Professor Thais Vasconcelos. In addition to the opportunity to collaborate with top-notch faculty that have complementary expertise, Vasconcelos was drawn to the University of Michigan Herbarium and will be its assistant curator. “The herbarium hosts a very important collection of Myrtaceae, the group of plants that I studied for my Ph.D. and which I continue to work with through collaborations with several botanists around the world.” Myrtaceae, the myrtle family of trees and shrubs, are widely distributed in the tropics.

Rounding out the top three enticements, Vasconcelos added, “U-M is a very progressive university with several initiatives to promote DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) in science, which I also value greatly. I hope to keep contributing through my research, teaching and mentorship. This is an exceptional place to work.”

Originally from Brazil, Vasconcelos arrived in Ann Arbor with her partner, Dr. James Boyko, via Fayetteville, Ark. where she spent the last two and a half years working as a postdoc at the University of Arkansas. Under the supervision of Dr. Jeremy Beaulieu, she worked on a project that aimed at developing and testing new diversification models.

This fall, Vasconcelos will continue working with undergraduate and graduate students, which she enjoys. “It’s great to see their progress from when we first discuss their projects to when it’s time to wrap up their first publications. I’m really looking forward to having an active research group of graduate and undergraduate students.”

Reflecting on her own discoveries as an undergraduate biology student, she said, “I had two moments that made me fall in love with plants and evolution. When I first learned about pollination syndromes –  I was just fascinated by how completely different plant lineages could evolve similar floral morphologies through convergence due to interactions with similar pollinators over time. For example, red tubular flowers in some species of Lobelia and Salvia are both associated with hummingbird pollination, even though these genera belong to completely unrelated plant families. The second was the first time I attended a class on phylogenetics. The possibility of reconstructing the evolutionary history of organisms by comparing their DNA sequences, and how we could use this information to make inferences about the past – this greatly interested me.”

“At the time, I was doing an internship at the UB herbarium at the Universidade de Brasilia, and I told my supervisor, Dr. Carol Proença, that I would very much like to work on a project that involved the use of phylogenies and floral traits for my master’s degree. She was a specialist in the plant family Myrtaceae, and that led me to continue to study the evolution of this lineage and of other members of Myrtales through my Ph.D. at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with Dr. Eve Lucas and beyond.”

In the years since, her research has shifted towards the biogeography of flowering plants, however, it is still focused on the role that phylogenetic relationships and lineage-specific traits play in how plants diversify. “Because of my work with tropical Myrtales, I’m also still very interested in filling in the gaps in our knowledge on poorly known plant groups, especially those in tropical areas.”