Assembling the Tree of Life

The UNSW Assembling the Tree of Life (BIOS3221) course is designed to train undergraduates in the principles and application of phylogenetic systematics. You’ll learn about the conceptual basis of comparative biology, using morphological and molecular data. This includes how to determine character homologies, construct and interpret phylogenies by hand and how to use the latest software programs (TNT and Mesquite).

This course introduces you to the growing field of bioinformatics. Using genomic data, you'll construct molecular phylogenetics using model-based approaches (Likelihood and Bayesian methods).

Assembling the Tree of Life will expose you to the importance of collection-based research through visits to the Australian Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens. You’ll also gain practical experience through a field trips to Smiths Lake Field Station. Fieldwork will focus on collection techniques, field identification and the importance of natural history information in classification. 


Course Breakdown

By the end of the course, you’ll achieve the following outcomes:

  • Understand the core concepts in phylogenetic systematics (characters, taxa and phylogeny)
  • Understand the nature of morphological and molecular data
  • Undertake and interpret phylogenetic analyses
  • Understand the importance of fieldwork
  • Understand the processes and material used in identifying taxa
  • Interpret and evaluate scientific ideas and express them in semester essay and class presentation

Knowledge of the above elements will be assessed through practicals, student projects and exercises associated with field trips to Smiths Lake Field Station.


Career Opportunities

Assembling the Tree of Life provides a gateway to understanding the evolutionary history of life on Earth, through the reconstruction of the Tree of Life (the phylogeny of all fossil and living species). It's a pathway to a career in systematics and taxonomy as a pure science, and to jobs in applied fields such as biosecurity, agriculture, natural resource management for example. The course covers many of the major groups of organisms and is relevant to Microbiologists, Botanists, Mycologists and Zoologists.

This course aligned with the new Decadal Plan for Biosystematics, and highlights the need for training a new generation of taxonomists in Australia, and describe the estimated 70% of Australia’s species that are undescribed.


What Our Graduates Say

“Assembling the Tree of Life (BIOS3221) was one of my favourite undergraduate courses. The content was interesting and vastly different from other courses. Gerry and the other lecturers were helpful in answering any questions or concerns, and in making sure we all understood the topics. The field trip was fun and very educational, as we collected insects and created our own collection.”

- Arlee McMah, UNSW Bachelor of Science (Honours) graduate.