February 04, 2020

Darwin Week to celebrate renowned scientist’s contribution to understanding nature

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill.  Charles Darwin tried to answer some of the most fundamental questions human beings have: How did we get here, along with all this other life?

Southern Illinois University Carbondale will again celebrate the man whose scientific framework for understanding this mystery. Darwin Week 2020, which starts Monday, Feb. 10 and runs through Feb. 13, features speakers, an art contest, student research symposium and other events.

Annual event at SIU

SIU holds Darwin Week each year to mark the birthday of the scientist and author of watershed publication “On the Origin of Species.” The work introduced the concept of natural selection, which results in various favorable-to-survival characteristics being preserved over generations in animals, thus resulting in their evolution.

Marisa Szubryt, a master's student in the School of Biological Sciences who is co-organizing this year’s event, said Darwin's work greatly expanded our understanding of how the natural world works.

“In addition to his work on the theory of evolution by natural selection, he studied the effects that orchids, earthworms, and countless other organisms have on biodiversity and the planet,” she said. “Understanding organisms' interactions and evolutionary patterns has been critical for combating diseases and saving lives as we learn more about the natural world.”

Events, speakers on tap

This year marks SIU’s 14th annual celebration of Darwin Week, and organizers have pulled out the stops. The two outside speakers at this year’s event will help connect the vital work scientists do with the general public, as well as provide inspiration for students and early-career scientists to tackle unresolved questions within the scientific community, Szubryt said.

Darwin Week kicks off Monday with two presentations by Joan Strassmann, professor of biology at Washington University. Strassmann’s work focuses on the ecological interactions between social amoeba, bacteria, and their large, multicellular hosts.

Strassmann will give her first presentation, titled “Who Benefits in Amoeba-Bacteria Symbioses?” at 2 p.m. in the Guyon Auditorium at Morris Library. Her second presentation, titled “Why Have Large Organisms Evolved?” takes place at 7 p.m.in the same location.

On Feb. 11, organizers will hold a Student Symposium showcasing research and presentations by SIU students. Szubryt said the symposium will feature previous work by women in science and will be led by student speakers.

“Minorities in science have been largely overlooked by traditional education, and this helps highlight the significance of their work to the research students are currently conducting at SIU,” she said.  

The event starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Guyon Auditorium.

Art and games in the mix this year

Feb. 12 features an art show and the “Natural Selection Game Tournament.”

The art show begins at 5 p.m. in the Mississippi Room at the Student Center. The event will highlight the SIU community’s talent and collections and will include art and natural history exhibitions. Participants in the contest are encouraged to display their natural history, biological or evolutionary-themed art. To participate, contact Breanna Whitely.

Game night will feature “Evolution: The Beginning,” an evolution-themed game that tests a character’s evolutionary potential. Prizes include various evolution merchandise and copies of the game. No experience is needed to play. Registration begins at 4:45 p.m. with the competition commencing at 5 p.m..

“We hope to show the incredible beauty and biodiversity of life while providing an interactive medium to teach others about the complexity and magnificence of evolution,” Szubryt said.

Florida scientist finishes week

Darwin Week concludes on Feb. 13 with two presentations by Pam Soltis, director of the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Florida.

“She is a renowned botanist and systematist, and she’ll be speaking about her efforts towards natural history preservation and scientific utility,” Szubryt said.

Soltis’ first presentation, titled “Integrated Research Using Digitized Herbarium Resources,” is set for 2 p.m. in the Guyon Auditorium. Her second presentation, titled “Building, Using and Teaching the Tree of Life,” is set for the 7 p.m. in the same location.