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Current Fellows

Samantha Bosco

Cornell University (New York)

Skaru:rę Food Forest Project

Sustainable agriculture research often overlooks critical social justice implications underlying the history of land dispossession and appropriated indigenous crops. This is especially true at Cornell University, a Land Grant Institution in what is today New York State (NYS). Its founding and success were only possible from the sale of stolen and forcibly ceded Indigenous lands. As a non-native PhD Candidate at Cornell University, I am addressing this in my dissertation research, which focuses on the past, present, and future of temperate nut trees and their use in temperate agroforestry, particularly in the context of nature-based climate solutions. This proposal is in support of a collaborative agroforestry project with members of the Tuscarora Nation called the “Skaru:re Food Forest”. Drawing on the emerging fields of land education, decolonial participatory action research, and Indigenous food sovereignty, this project reexamines the roles and possibilities for sustainable agriculture research programs, particularly at Land Grant Institutions, to dismantle settler-colonial notions of land and agriculture.

Research Advisor: Dr. Marvin Pritts, Professor Horticulture, Cornell University

Current Fellows

Veronica (Vero) Iriart

University of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania)

Will Herbicide Pollution Cost Plants Their Mutualisms with Pollinators and Soil Bacteria?

In 1962, scientist Rachel Carson from Pittsburgh sounded the alarm for greater environmental responsibility through her book Silent Spring. What followed was revolutionary change in the law, most famously the ban of the pesticide DDT which was inadvertently decimating bird populations across the country. Despite these achievements, chemical pollution from pesticides is still a significant environmental concern today. In particular, herbicide drift, which occurs when herbicide particles are taken up by the wind unto nontarget areas, is on the rise due to the increasing popularity of potent yet drift-prone herbicides. My previous work and that of others has shown that herbicide drift exposure can disrupt mutualisms (ecological interactions in which both species benefit), especially those between wild plant, pollinator (mainly bees), and beneficial bacteria species. However, the long-term consequences of herbicide drift pollution are unknown, such as whether it could cause these mutualisms to ultimately breakdown over the course of evolution. This year, my research will use a combination of greenhouse and field studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Oakland Campus and the Hilltop Urban Farm in the St. Clair neighborhood of Pittsburgh to confront the challenge of predicting evolutionary outcomes of herbicide pollution on the plant-pollinator and plant-bacteria mutualism, which together produce one-third of all food outputs and improve soil quality worldwide. As a result, this research will provide important insights into the threats facing natural systems upon which we all depend, and thereby help support their conservation.

Research Advisor: Dr. Tia-Lynn Ashman, Distinguished Professor, University of Pittsburgh

Current Fellows

Sarah Klionsky

University of Connecticut (Connecticut)

Influence of Plant Community Traits and Microtopography on Nitrogen Removal in Restored Wetlands on Former Cranberry Bogs

Rivers transport nitrogen from human activities, such as fertilizer use, wastewater disposal, and burning fossil fuels, to coastal estuaries where it causes changes to the environment and negatively impacts aquatic organisms. Many municipalities are looking for “nature-based solutions” to help remove nitrogen from watersheds before it reaches the coast. Wetlands have the potential to remove a lot of nitrogen from river systems, because saturated conditions are necessary for an essential step of the process, denitrification, to occur. Restoring wetlands on former agricultural land is a strategy for increasing the amount of wetland area in a watershed. The restored wetlands that I will study are retired cranberry farms, or bogs, in southern New England that have been actively restored to re-establish wetland conditions. Plants play an important role in creating conditions favorable to denitrification. Wetlands often have local differences in topography, called microtopography, which promote a more varied plant community and impact the conditions that are beneficial for denitrification. I will study the relationship between wetland nitrogen removal, the plant community, and microtopography by surveying plants and collecting plants and soil at different elevations for laboratory analyses. This research will both help us learn more about the factors that contribute to denitrification and inform future wetland restoration projects. I will also create a virtual field trip and related experiential activities to introduce students to plant-based ecosystem services on restored wetlands.

Research Advisor: Dr. Beth Lawrence, Assistant Professor, University of Connecticut

Current Fellows

Rachel Reeb

University of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania)

Title: Is Timing Everything? Using Phenology to Improve Restoration Outcomes in Invaded Landscapes

Nonnative plants are species that have been introduced by humans to a location outside of its natural range. Nonnative plants often hurt efforts to protect and restore natural areas because of their ability to displace native plants and reduce overall species diversity. In my graduate research, I study how the timing of nonnative species’ life cycle events (such as leaf-out and flowering) impact their ability to invade natural areas and compete with native plants over resources (such as light and nutrients). For example, previous studies have found that nonnative plants living in abandoned agricultural fields can flower up-to a month earlier in the growing season than native species. This may provide them with a special competitive advantage: the ability to grow and capture resources early, before native plants become active and can compete. However, we still do not fully understand whether this unique trait benefits nonnative plants, nor how it impacts the health of native plants. In my research, I have two goals. First, I will investigate the consequences of early nonnative plant invasions on native plant health. I predict that it puts native plants at a competitive disadvantage and leads to their displacement from natural areas. Second, I will investigate how life cycle timing influences the way that nonnative plants interact with one another. I predict that nonnative species with separated life cycle timing (for example, one with April flowering and another with September flowering) actually benefit from growing together, and that this promotes their invasion success.

Research Advisor: Dr. Sara Kuebbing, Assistant Professor of Invasion Ecology, University of Pittsburgh Department of Biological Sciences

Current Fellows

Sarah Skubel

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (New Jersey)

Natural Antimicrobials for the Post COVID Era

Bacteria and fungi have become increasingly resistant to antimicrobial drugs, creating a need for better antibiotics. Most antibiotics prescribed today, use a single compound to kill bacteria, enabling the development of bacterial resistance. Plants have co-evolved for millions of years with bacterial and fungal pathogens and developed many secondary metabolites with diverse modes of action to defend themselves from infection and hinder the development of resistance. Working together on different anti-microbial targets, these compounds can bypass resistance and remain effective for many generations. History of herbal medicine has also taught us that the most potent and effective remedies come from combining plants. Potentially synergistic compounds may, not only be present within a single plant species, but also in co-administered species. I believe that using plant combinations offers a better and more sustainable strategy to treating infections, than single antibiotic-based drugs. This project will investigate how combinations of plants work synergistically to combat microbial growth in the effort to develop a more environmentally and evolutionarily sustainable antiseptic. I hypothesize that by combining antimicrobial species, of diverse modes of action, will be more effective at targeting microbes than commercial antiseptics. Eight traditionally relevant species will be tested against six microorganisms (Four bacteria and two fungi). Lowest active concentrations and growth inhibition will be tested for each botanical species against each microbe. Such studies are key in understanding how microbes react under multiple modes of action, what potential synergies occur between plants of different species, and how natural antiseptics compare to commercial products.

Research Advisor: Dr. Ilya Raskin,Distinguished Professor, Rutgers University, and President of Global Institute for Bioexploration

Current Fellows

Emily C. Thyroff

University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (Hawaii)

A Key to Restoring Threatened Hawaiian Dry Forests Resides with the Endemic Santalum Species

Hawaiian sandalwood, locally known as ‘iliahi, serve many roles in native forests, from stabilizing soil, to medicinal properties, producing valuable oils, and supporting endangered bird species. ‘Iliahi also lives in harmony with native Hawaiian plants, though it has a unique relationship with its neighbors. ‘Iliahi needs to connect its roots with neighboring plants to survive; therefore, ‘iliahi need a healthy forest community to thrive. Extensive, unregulated removal of native species in Hawaiian dry forests where ‘iliahi reside, severely reduced numbers of native species, especially ‘iliahi. To effectively restore and conserve ‘iliahi, we also need to restore and conserve neighboring plants. This proposal focuses on one part of a larger project aiming to improve the survival and early growth of planted ‘iliahi seedlings by better understanding its distinctive relationship with other plants. Specifically, this project will pair ʻiliahi with four native dry forest plants. We will measure plant growth and development to determine which native plants best support ʻiliahi. We hypothesize that nitrogen use, growth rate, and fertilizer and water amounts will influence how well the native plants can support ʻiliahi. Results from this project contribute to our understanding of plants that require the support and root networks of other plants. We hope to improve active healing, forest restoration, and conservation efforts by giving Hawaiian communities confidence in establishing healthy, thriving forest communities.

Research Advisor: Dr. Travis W. Idol, Professor of Tropical Forestry and Agroforestry, University of Hawai‘i Mānoa

Current Fellows

Alexa S. Wagner

Case Western Reserve University (Ohio)

Understanding the Impacts of Forest Restoration on Demographic Shifts in the Understory Plant Community

The abandonment of agricultural lands is common in the United States. As forests regenerate on these degraded landscapes, the resultant forests tend to have fewer species and trees that grow more slowly than do old-growth forests. In part, these changes are driven by invasive species, originating from other parts of the world and establishing in these new-growth forests. These novel species can suppress or displace the native plants important for ecosystem health and functioning. In these new forests, trees tend to establish at the same time and mature at similar rates, creating dense, evenly-aged stands in contrast to original old-growth forests which have greater diversity of mixed-age native plants. To restore the historic integrity of these forests, forest managers implement removal of invasive plants while thinning dense tree stands through timbering. However, we lack a full understanding of how these efforts impact the health and diversity of these restored forests. My research explores how proper forest management creates resilient forests. During my graduate studies, I am quantifying the impacts of forest management on the growth, survival, herbivory, and dispersal of native and invasive plants. This research will inform best management practices, improving our ability to manage and restore our young forests. Using my connection with the Holden Arboretum, I will use this information to help influence the forest management decisions of landowners regionally, and beyond.

Research Advisor: Dr. Katharine L. Stuble, Holden Arboretum and Case Western Reserve University

Current Fellows

Taylor Zallek

University of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania)

Understanding How Populations of the Aquatic Plant Lemna minor Evolve in Response to Iron Pollution from Abandoned Mine Drainage Near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Wild populations of plants often struggle to exist near areas influenced by heavy human activity. This activity can include pollution as the result of mining, manufacturing, or agriculture. For populations of aquatic plants living near historical areas of mining near Pittsburgh, these challenges are often brought on by excessive concentrations of metals such as iron in the water. In high enough concentrations, iron can be toxic to plant populations and harm their growth. While we often consider how plants respond by measuring characteristics like growth, researchers often forget to consider that these populations could be evolving in response to pollution as well. This evolution, or change in genetic composition through time, to iron exposure could drastically change how these populations perform. For instance, populations could evolve to become more tolerant of iron exposure and help to remove it from the environment (aiding in environment improvement efforts). In contrast, populations might evolve to become more resistant to iron uptake resulting in populations that remove less iron while competing with plant populations that do. To determine how these populations evolve, I will conduct an evolution experiment where I expose populations of the aquatic plant Lemna minor to either high iron (polluted) or low iron (treated) environments. After enough time has passed for evolution to occur, I will transfer these populations into their same or opposite environment to contrast and measure the effect of evolution on their pollutant response. Results will help us to determine whether evolution aids remediation or hinder it.

Research Advisor: Dr. Martin Turcotte, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh

Top photo © Paul g. Wiegman