Two biology Ph.D. students have each been awarded a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Elise Hinman and Luka Negoita, both graduate researchers in Associate Professor Jason Fridley’s lab, will receive Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants (DDIGs) to aid investigations on aspects of plant ecology—all with an eye to conservation.
The NSF DDIG is awarded to doctoral candidates in the sciences and is aimed to augment already-planned research. In this way, a new dimension can be added to a student’s dissertation research and give recipients a competitive edge in future career pursuits.
“I’m very, very excited,” Negoita says about the award. Hinman echoes: “I was flabbergasted.”
Hinman will use the NSF funding to expand her work on invasive plant species. She explains that, “Invasives are really prolific growers; they outgrow the natives in the forest understory. We want to know if that’s coming at the expense of something else.”
Plants have a couple of options of what to do with the carbon they gain from photosynthesis: they can use it to grow new roots and shoots, maintain previously grown tissue or store it up for leaner times, Hinman says. Her dissertation research gets at these budgeting processes in native versus invasive plants—an area ripe for investigation. “We don’t understand how even the native species in Central New York use their carbon or how much carbon they store, let alone how invasive species are behaving,” she says.
DDIG funding will allow her to investigate another option: defense. Plants can also use carbon to form distasteful compounds that encourage herbivores to find a snack elsewhere. By looking at multiple carbon uses, she’s “hoping to find the Achilles heel of invasive species,” with aspirations of advising land managers how to successfully combat invasive plants.
Negoita focuses on plant dispersal, whether that be plants traveling from the mainland to small islands off the coast of Maine, or onto “islands” of bare soil in upstate New York fields. “A lot of people assume plants can get everywhere,” he says, pointing to a common notion that the local environment is the major factor behind why certain plants grow in certain locations. It turns out that the ability for seeds to get from one place to another can be an even more important driver of the variety of plants living in a given location.
DDIG funding will enable Negoita to include a third study system to his work on the Maine islands and “field islands”. He plans to investigate plant dispersal on islands in a man-made reservoir in the Southeastern U.S. Because the islands were clear-cut when the reservoir was filled roughly 60 years ago, many of the plants that are currently on a given island must’ve made the journey from the mainland or a neighboring island, he explains.
Negoita hopes his island work—from oceans to reservoirs to fields—will provide insight into the ecosystem effects of habitats being broken up by human development. “Habitat fragmentation is associated with a loss of biodiversity,” Negoita says, which in turn influences how an ecosystem functions. Looking at how ecosystems work on islands can reflect how once-continuous environments may respond to being broken apart.
Negoita and Hinman’s advisor is thrilled for the pair. "I couldn't be more pleased by the accomplishments of Luka and Elise at this early stage in their careers, whether or not they receive NSF support. But such recognition from established scientists is a real shot in the arm for anyone working in a competitive academic environment, and something they can build on as they move forward in academia," Fridley says.