UC Merced Connect: Passion for monkey flower leads to genetic discoveries

The environment affects the way genetic populations move, and similar environments likely play a bigger role in how a species develops than does geographic distance.

These are two of the discoveries professor Jason Sexton has made studying the monkey flower, a California native plant that is practically in his backyard now that he has joined UC Merced.

Monkey flowers, which come in diverse sizes, shapes and colors, grow wild in the Sierra Nevada, a place Sexton has studied even from his previous position in Australia. The chance to come to UC Merced, to work and live where the bulk of his research takes place, was too good to pass up, he said.

Sexton started work here in January, and is still setting up his lab, plus teaching a class this semester.

Sexton has years of data on the monkey flower, or Mimulus. There are at least 150 varieties of Mimulus worldwide and roughly half of them can be found in California.

“It’s a really diverse group of plants, and we’re right here at the front door of its diversity,” he said. “They are a bellwether for understanding plant diversity and changing climates.”

One monkey flower Sexton’s group studies in the Sierra grows at elevations between 3,000 and 10,000 feet.

Sexton and his students have made some significant genetic discoveries, including that the populations that grow in the same elevation ranges, no matter how far apart they are in the mountains, are more genetically similar than they are to the same species that live at different elevations or in different environments.

Sexton said he is looking forward to getting into the field every couple of weeks with students to see what else can be discovered about monkey flowers and other plants.

“I would like to have the students scouring the elevation ranges and measuring populations, and I also want to see how the Rim fire affected populations,” Sexton said.

As Sexton and his students sequence the genomes of monkey flowers, they hope to come to a better understanding of how plants are able to diversify and inhabit so many climates.

Cognitive Science Award

A leading expert in artificial intelligence and computer vision will deliver a public lecture about his work and accept UC Merced’s 2014 Distinguished Cognitive Scientist Award.

Professor Dana H. Ballard, with the University of Texas at Austin, will deliver his talk, “Why Do We Look Where We Look?” at 3:30 p.m. Monday in the California Room. The talk about his leading discoveries is intended for a general audience and is free.

“Dr. Ballard’s career epitomizes the interdisciplinary nature of cognitive science,” UC Merced professor David Noelle said. “Trained as a computer scientist, with a focus on artificial intelligence and computer vision, he has applied an information processing perspective to our understanding of how humans see the world, using their biological visual systems in complex coordination with the movement of their eyes and their bodies in order accomplish everyday tasks like driving a car.”

The Cognitive and Information Sciences faculty group selected Ballard as this year’s recipient.

He developed innovative artificial intelligence methods for radiology and medical-image processing. With Christopher M. Brown, he wrote a pioneering textbook on computer vision. His work popularized the use of the generalized Hough transform for visual object detection.

His extensive studies of the human visual system, focusing on interactions with motor control systems and task constraints, have led to fundamental changes in how perceptual processes are conceived. These insights caused him to be an early proponent of “active vision” approaches to machine vision.

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