Profile: Hana Kucera

Hana Kucera has always had an interest in science. Kucera credits her scientific fascination to her parents who first introduced her to the observation, exploration and study of living things in their natural habitats. She graduated from British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University in 2004 with a B.Sc. in Biology. As a Master’s student at the University of New Brunswick in the fall of 2004, Kucera began her research in Dr. Gary Saunders’ lab studying the diversity of marine intertidal seaweeds of Canada using variation in DNA barcode sequences. Kucera subsequently transferred to the PhD program, where she is currently finishing the “last bits of lab work” to complete her PhD.

Seaweed studies in Saunders’ Lab require the researchers to spend three to four weeks of the summer collecting seaweeds from various parts of Canada. Kucera usually collects samples in her native British Columbia traveling around Vancouver Island. The researchers have not only traveled extensively throughout the east and west coasts of Canada, lab members have also traveled to subarctic Churchill Manitoba, located on the Hudson Bay of Canada. Seaweed collection in the subarctic is particularly interesting, according to Kucera, because it allows researchers to hypothesize about species distribution. When a species is found in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, it is possible that the species crossed over via the Arctic. Additionally, the Arctic is an extreme environment for seaweed to grow, as ice scours rocks thereby providing difficult conditions for seaweed growth.

DNA barcoding has been the primary focus of the lab for the past five years. Kucera explains that there are three general groups of seaweeds – reds, greens, and browns and each type of seaweed requires a specific method for DNA extraction. While red and green seaweeds have a fairly straightforward method of DNA extraction, brown seaweed tends to have a lot of polysaccharides and other PCR inhibiting compounds that need to be removed separately, adding an extra step in its DNA extraction. After extracting DNA from the seaweed, researchers perform a straightforward PCR amplification of DNA barcode markers as well as other markers being studied in the lab. All sequencing is done on the premises, as Saunders’ lab has an in-house sequencer.

Saunders’ lab has been using molecular techniques like DNA sequencing and barcoding since it became available. In fact, Hana’s supervisor, Dr. Gary Saunders, was one of the first researchers who began to do seaweed taxonomy based on DNA sequence comparisons. Prior to DNA barcoding, seaweed taxonomy traditionally was based on morphological and anatomical characteristics of the plant. Seaweed morphology focuses on studying the general shape, color and other characteristics of the each blade visible to the naked eye. For example, a branch seaweed would have its branching pattern studied. Analyzing the seaweed’s anatomical characteristics requires the examination of internal structures, both vegetative and reproductive.

Dr. Saunders, who has been working in traditional seaweed taxonomy over the past few years, is an expert in both morphological and anatomical differences between species. “…DNA barcoding allows [Dr. Saunders] to rapidly screen hundreds and hundreds of collections and arrange them into the groups based on similarities in their DNA sequences. He then examines these ‘genetic species groups’ for morphological or anatomical characteristics unique to each group,” Kucera explains, “Whereas, if he were to visually inspect each specimen, he might not be able to detect subtle differences between specimens indicating new species or it would it would be too time consuming to sift through thousands of collections hoping to discover new species… This DNA barcoding system provides a rapid screen that gives you the first hint of where to look for new species.”

Hana had her first paper titled, “Assigning morphological variants of Fucus (Fucales, Phaeophyceae) in Canadian waters to recognized species using DNA barcoding,” published in 2008. Fucus are notoriously difficult to identify to species using morphological assessments, making them ideal test subjects for DNA barcoding. Hers was the first study that established that DNA barcoding works as well as any other molecular marker currently used to distinguish species of Fucus.

After completing her PhD, Kucera hopes to return to British Columbia, and seek a lecturer position. While, she enjoys research, Kucera prefers teaching and describes her ideal situation as being a senior lecturer at a university with outdoor education for students.

“Teaching,” Kucera explains, “provides me with rewards that are much more frequent than in research. With research you can work hard in the lab for months and then get a result that is exciting, but after that much time, some of the excitement may have worn off… Seeing the ‘light go on’ in a students mind when they understand a concept, that happens every day and it is rewarding to see students get excited about something new that they’ve learned.”

“I like science in a general sense and whenever you do research as a grad student you become this specialist in one area. However, as a teacher you have to draw from many different fields, bringing together various ideas into a more general concept. I like sharing this excitement for all different kinds of scientific ideas.”

  • Read Hana’s 2008 Publication: DNA barcoding Botany, 86 (9), 1065-1079 DOI: 10.1139/B08-056