In the Light of Evolution

"Remember—'Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,'" says Rob Phillips to a group of Caltech undergraduates, as they step out of a small plane onto the Galápagos Islands. Phillips, the Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics and Biology, is quoting biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, whose 1972 essay "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" inspired Phillips and Victoria Orphan, the James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science and Geobiology, to create an evolution course at Caltech. The biannual class, founded in 2014, culminates in a nine-day field trip to the Galápagos—where Charles Darwin first collected evidence for his revolutionary theory of evolution.

"The idea is that evolution is a hinge for all of biology," Phillips says. "But many biologists and bioengineers don't get to take an evolution course."

The 10-week course combined traditional lectures with laboratory exercises—such as the famed Luria-Delbrück experiment that revealed the nature of genetic mutations in microbes—and local field trips, such as to Occidental College's Moore Lab of Zoology where students measured variations in beak sizes for several species of birds. During the spring break trip to the Galápagos, Phillips, Orphan, and their students lived on a 22-meter boat for the entirety of the trip. Guided by naturalist Ernesto Norero, who has lived on the islands for over 20 years, the students spent their days hiking, snorkeling, and observing nature.

"Learning about evolution was our primary goal, but it's also very important that Caltech students get the opportunity to get out in the world, express a sense of wonder, and appreciate the magnitude of human impact on the planet," Phillips says.

"There is no place quite like the Galápagos for demonstrating the intimate connection between the geosphere and biosphere," Orphan says. "The students arrive in the Galápagos freshly primed with evolutionary facts, equations, and hypotheses, and leave enriched with a deeper understanding of the big picture and how it all ties together."

Credit: Courtesy of Alice Michel

For several students, the trip was their first time traveling out of the country. "Every day, we were busy from sunup to well-past sundown, hiking and snorkeling twice a day," says Bobby Sanchez, a rising senior in geophysics. "I was really surprised by the diversity and ubiquity of life on the islands." Pictured is a lone flamingo the students encountered during a hike.

Created by Lori Dajose
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