Science Alumni Spotlight: Jessica Allen

March 11, 2022

Dr. Jessica Allen headshot at the beach

Dr. Jessica Allen is a lichenologist and assistant professor of biology at Eastern Washington University. She is also a 2018 graduate of the CUNY Graduate Center Ph.D. in Plant Science. We caught up with Jessi to ask her about life, work, and her student experience at CUNY.

Lichens are such unique and important organisms, yet they are underappreciated. Can you tell us a little about your path to studying lichens?

I was born and raised in SE Washington state. My dad was a rancher and my mom was a hairdresser, so neither of them had scientific backgrounds, but they both loved to be outside. Lichens were obvious on the rocks in the pacific northwest and I remember camping with my mom in the Olympic Peninsula and gathering wolf lichens to put on the mirror in the house.

Later, as an undergraduate at Eastern Washington University, I took a mycology class with Suzanne Schwab. She was an early inspiration to me and I ended up taking every class she taught. In a full-circle twist, I actually now hold the position at EWU that she vacated when she retired! Also at EWU, I worked with Robin O’Quinn on systematics and plant taxonomy. These undergraduate experiences paved the way to internships at the Pacific Northwest National Lab and studying lichens at the field museum in Chicago and eventually the New York Botanical Garden.

What stands out to you about your experience as a PhD student at the NYBG?

I was really honored to work with two great lichenologists at NYBG: Dick Harris, and James Lendemer. James was my advisor and we are still close friends and collaborators. The herbarium at NYBG is also amazing and it was a privilege to have access to world-class collections for learning and research.

Tell us a little about your current research.

I have two main areas of research: lichen genomics and lichen conservation. My lab is pioneering using a new type of sequencing (Oxford nanopore sequencing) for lichens. I do all of this work in-house and undergraduate students participate in every step. Together, we’ve created some of the most complete lichen genomes available. It’s fantastic to be able to move my field of research forward at a primarily undergraduate institution. On the conservation side, I conduct research on lichen biodiversity and conservation genetics. I am also the co-chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Lichen Specialist group. In this position I coordinate a global network of volunteers to advance lichen conservation, including supporting research and conservation assessments associated with the Red List of endangered species.   

I know first-hand what a good teacher you are after taking a field course with you and James at the Highlands Biological Station. Tell us a little bit about the teaching and mentoring you do at EWU.

I love seeing how much students can grow in two to four years. Mycology is a favorite class to teach. I also enjoy teaching science communication. It’s not officially part of curriculum, but these skills are so important for young scientists to learn. I also mentor masters and undergraduate students on independent research projects and enjoy helping them create and execute their research project for the first time.  

What were your favorite parts of your CUNY experience?

I loved all of my CUNY classes. Access to fresh material from the garden for learning botany was a real treat! I also loved the opportunities to connect with other institutions and attend classes or talks at the American Museum of Natural History, Rockefeller University and other places in the city. On the administrative side, I received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship as a student and CUNY was very supportive of the work associated with that grant. Finally, I am proud to be a CUNY alum because CUNY continues to walk the walk when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.

What advice can you give to current CUNY science students about to embark on their careers?

Enjoy the resources while you have access to them. Connect with as many people as you can. NYC is your oyster with CUNY-verse on your side!

About the authors: Laura Boggess and Ella Vardeman are second-year graduate students in CUNY’s Plant Science PhD program. They study lichens and medicinal plants respectively and loved connecting with Jessi as a scientist / mentor who is a little further down the path.

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