Undergraduate courses | Field courses | Reproductive biology workshops in China

Undergraduate courses

I have taught a wide range of course at the University of Toronto and really enjoy teaching and interacting with undergraduates. I won a Faculty of Arts and Science Teaching Award in 1992-3 for first year teaching. Currently, I teach three courses at the first, second and fourth years. I have taught first year introductory biology since coming to U of T and for the past decade I have been the team leader of our large full year course BIO 150 Organisms in their Environment with an enrollment of 1600-1800 first year students, all in a single large class in Convocation Hall! It is one of the largest (if not the largest) classes in N. America. This course pioneered large class teaching at U of T and in 1999 our teaching team won the Northrop Frye Award for integrating teaching with research. Unlike many large first year courses, the teaching team of this course has been composed of some of the most active researchers in EEB including Professors Anurag Agawal, Troy Day, Bob Jefferies, Locke Rowe, John Stinchcombe and James Thomson, among others. With the move to half courses in first year in 2010, this successful course has been replaced by two half courses, one in first year (BIO 120H1F - Adaptation and Biodiversity) and the other in second year (BIO220H1 - From Genomes to Ecosystems in a Changing World).


BIO 120 – Biodiversity and adaptation

This course is divided into two equal sections. James Thomson teaches the first half, which is more ecological in content, and I teach the second half, which focuses on evolutionary biology. We teach the principles and concepts of evolution and ecology related to the origins of adaptation and biodiversity. We focus on the mechanisms and processes driving biological diversification illustrated from various perspectives using empirical and theoretical approaches. Topics include: the origins and maintenance of genetic diversity; natural selection; speciation; phylogenetics and macroevolution; physiological, population and community ecology; global change biology; conditions for coexistence; conservation, species extinction and invasion biology.

Barrett lectures

  • Introduction to evolutionary biology
  • Darwin’s big idea and how it changed biology
  • What Darwin saw on the Beagle: a geographical perspective on biodiversity and adaptation
  • Neo-Darwinism and the evolutionary significance of genetic variation
  • The maintenance and measurement of genetic variation
  • Sex, reproductive systems and evolution
  • Populations structure, gene flow and genetic drift
  • Natural selection and adaptation
  • Species, speciation and hybridization
  • Phylogenetics and macroevolution
  • Evolutionary applications: invasive species
  • Biodiversity, extinction and conservation

The other principal course that I teach at U of T is EEB 202 Plants and Society. I have taught this course since joining the university, first as “economic botany” for science students, and then more recently as a science distribution requirement for ~150 humanities and social science students. I am committed to informing non-science students about the importance of plants to people and this course provides a great forum for this.


EEB 202 – Plants and society

The course is divided into two equal sections; I teach the first half and Professor Terry Carleton (Forestry) teaches the second half. In my section, I introduce the importance of plants to society with a focus on the domestication of plants for use in agriculture. The characteristics of three groups of plants – cultivated species, invasive species and rare and endangered species – are highlighted, with contrasts between their main features as a central theme. The course begins with the basic principles of Darwinian evolution, Mendelian genetics, plant reproduction, and differences between artificial and natural selection. It then covers issues related to the origins of agriculture and the nature of plant domestication. I also discuss modern approaches to plant improvement with a special focus on genetically-modified crops (GMO’s) and their environmental consequences. The topic of invasive plants is then discussed with particular attention to addressing questions related to the features that make them so successful, and how they are controlled. Finally, I end my section with a consideration of the threats posed to biodiversity, and how the new discipline of conservation biology can aid in the preservation of threatened species and plant genetic resources, particularly crop gene pools.

Barrett Lectures

  • Introduction to the section and the lecturer
  • Evolution and genetics
  • Plant reproductive diversity
  • Origins of agriculture
  • Domestication of crop plants
  • Genetically modified crops
  • Plant invasions: general principles
  • Plant invasions: case histories & control
  • Biodiversity, rarity & extinction
  • Conservation biology
  • Conservation of genetic resources
  • Course summary & questions and answers
  • Mid term exam

I teach other courses at U of T including advanced undergraduate courses, graduate seminar courses and field courses. This academic year I will be teaching EEB 494 Seminar in evolutionary biology with Professor John Stinchcombe. The course involves paper reading, discussions and student presentations on current topics in evolutionary biology.


Field courses

Perhaps my favourite teaching duty is being an instructor on field courses. One of the advantages at being at U of T is that we offer a wide range of options for undergraduates. Over the years, I have been fortunate to teach field courses in diverse settings ranging from the Arctic field course in Churchill, Manitoba to a tropical ecology and evolution course in various locations including Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Ecuador.


Panama 2007 pic

Panama teaching team 2007


Birding pic

Birding in the mangroves with Rising


Hyacinth boat pic

Hyacinth man dreams on


Rising pic

Professor Rising – end of a long day


Reussia sampling pic

John Brett – sampling Reussia


Sagittaria pic

Sagittaria sword fight or project


Passiflora pic

Passiflora vitifolia


Cochlospermum pic

Cochlospermum vitifolium


Asplundia pic

sp. (Cyclanthaceae)

Heliconia pic

Heliconia wagneriana


These courses involve field projects and student presentations and a lot of hard work. Supervising projects and demonstrating to students how one can test ecological and evolutionary hypotheses through field experiments is one of the most important aspects of undergraduate teaching and many students taking these courses have been “turned on to E&E” and have subsequently gone on to graduate school, in part because of these experiences. I also enjoy mentoring both undergraduate and graduate students on how projects can be written up for reports and scientific papers. A lecture that I have given on this topic to graduate students is below.

With my colleague Professor Chris Darling (Curator of Entomology, Royal Ontario Museum), I have taught the field course Biodiversity and Ecology in Indochina in Vietnam on three occasions, and this exposed me to the rich biodiversity of tropical forests at Ba Be (2000) and Bach Ma (2002, 2005) National Parks in N.E. and Central Vietnam, respectively, where our courses were based. In 2006 we switched locations of our S.E. Asian field course and taught it at Xishuangbanna, Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) in Yunnan Province, China (Plant-Insect Interactions in S.E. Asia). The garden has an unsurpassed collection of tropical plants and is also close to rich tropical dipterocarp forests. This was the first time a U of T field course had been taught in China and a novel aspect of the course was that it was jointly organized with my Chinese colleagues from XTBG (Professor Qing-Jun Li) and Beijing Normal University (Professor Da-Yong Zhang) and involved participation by both Canadian and Chinese students. This was a fascinating experience involving the two groups of students working together to solve research questions in E&E and served as an excellent model for cross-cultural cooperation.


XTBG May 2006 pic

Plant-insect interactions field course, XTBG May 2006


problem solving pic

Joint problem solving in the field


sky walk in Dipterocarps pic

Up high in the Dipterocarps


Amorphophallus pic

Dreaming of Amorphophallus


food pic

Different from our Chinese food


Project presentation pic

Project presentation



In 2008 I taught a month long field course in Ecuador (ENV 395 - Ecology and Conservation in the High Andes, Western Amazonia, and the Galapágos) with Chris Darling, to a mix of students from the sciences and social sciences. This was a challenging course because of the diverse backgrounds of the students and because of the physical challenges. We traveled from the high Andes, hiking up to 4900m, and then descended to the rain sodden tropical Amazonian forests of the Rio Tiputini Biosphere Reserve a week later. As one might imagine the highlight of the course was the last 10 days on the Galápagos, my first visit to the islands. We visited four islands – San Cristóbal, Floreana, Isabela, Santa Cruz – and saw many of the classic plants and animals described by Charles Darwin as well as the site where he first stepped ashore.



ENV 395 May 2008 High Andes 4900m



Student pollination project on Gentianella 4000m



En route to the Rio Tiputini


boat trip

Professor Darling and the infamous “Amazonian dung beetle project”



ENV 395 June 2008 Santa Cruz, Galápagos


boat trip

Galápagos tortoises and small people




Reproductive biology workshops in China

With the help of several Chinese colleagues, particularly Professor Da-Yong Zhang, I have organized two Reproductive Biology Workshops for Chinese graduate students, PDFs and faculty. These have involved lectures and field projects at sites in different ecosystems in China. The first was taught by Professors Christopher Eckert (Queen’s Univ.), Lawrence Harder (Univ. of Calgary), John Pannell (Univ. of Oxford) and myself in May 2006. We began at Donling Mountain at a temperate forest site ~100km north of Beijing, then travelled to the Jade Dragon Field Station near Lijiang in Yunnan Province to see subalpine species of the Himalayan foothills, and finally completed the course in tropical forests at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden. This workshop not only introduced us to many plant species but it also stimulated several important collaborations between members of our group and Chinese scientists.


Great Wall 2006

Pannell, Harder, Eckert & Barrett - Great Wall, May 2006


Eckert pic

Eckert Karaoke


Maple sex pic

Maple sex is complex


Rhododendron pic



Jade Dragon pic

Cold night at Jade Dragon


hot tropics pic

Finding tropical projects


Tacca pic

Baffling Tacca


Battered Plumeria pic

Battered Plumeria



Thanks to the success of the first course I was invited to organize a second workshop in 2009 at Donling Mountain taught by Professors Lawrence Harder, Brian Husband (Univ. of Guelph) and Joshua Kohn (Univ of California, San Diego) following the same format that we established in 2006. Following the workshop we then flew to Lanzhou, Gansu Province and gave a series of lectures at Lanzhou University. Then with the assistance of Drs. Jianquan Liu and Shurong Zhou and several students we were taken on a 5-day field trip on the Tibetan Plateau culminating in a visit to the spectacular Jiuzhaigou region. During this trip we saw many new plants as well as some that were more familiar to us back home (e.g. Purple Loosestrife and Fireweed).



Da-Yong’s boys belt it out


boat trip

Cardamine questions



Leaving Lanzhou for the plateau


boat trip

The field station crew



Barrett scores Purple Loosestrife


boat trip

Husband scores Fireweed



Long-tubed Pedicularis croizatiana


boat trip

Meconopsis horridula