Urban Agroecology Summer Research Experience!

We are looking for Project Grow volunteers interested in gaining research experience in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in urban agroecosystems. If you:

  • have an interest in ecology and/or evolutionary biology
  • are highly motivated
  • love agriculture

you are encouraged to apply!

Application Instructions

If interested, please submit the following application form, along with a C.V., an unofficial transcript from your current school, a personal statement (describe below), and one letter of recommendation to Theresa Wei Ying Ong (weiyingo@umich.edu) by May 31, 2012. Positions are limited, and accepted on a rolling basis.

In a one-page single spaced personal statement, please tell us about:

  • Any relevant experience, including class projects
  • Experiences that demonstrate your ability to work independently
  • What you hope to gain by participating in this project
  • Your academic or professional goals


Project description

The emergence of urban agriculture in cities around the world provides a convenient landscape to test questions of spatially-explicit ecological dynamics.  Can wildlife successfully travel between patchworks of habitat in otherwise inhospitable urban environments? To answer this question, we can look to pests, nature’s best migrants, for an answer. In agriculture, one pest may have several natural enemies, which together prevent crop devastation. But this observation conflicts with the traditional ecological theory that two organisms cannot coexist on the same, limited resource. Biocomplexity may provide a loophole to this conundrum in the form of non-linear relationships between competitors, where competitors having negative effects on one another limit exploitation of shared resources and thus help maintain diversity in the system. Crop diversity in urban gardens provides another layer of complication to the relationship be-

tween natural enemies. If pests are kept under damaging levels by complex interaction networks of organisms, how well do these systems remain intact across diversity gradients and the urban landscape as a whole? We will apply field, theoretical, and lab work towards understanding the patterns and mechanisms of pest and natural enemy dispersal through urban areas.  

The Players, Place, and Plan

Pea aphids (Acrythosiphon pisum) attach to the leaves and stems of pea plants and other leguminous crops (beans, clovers, alfalfa, etc.). They are capable of growing at incredibly fast rates, and can transmit virus-borne plant diseases causing significant crop damage and loss. For these reasons, aphids are considered an important agricultural pest. We wish to explore options for managing this pest by first considering its interactions with local natural enemy populations. Ladybird beetles and fungi are predators and parasites of these aphids, providing a natural form of pest control for gardeners. We wish to understand what the status of the aphid populations in the Project Grow gardens are, and how might they change throughout the growing season. We also wish to know whether there are natural control agents that are limiting aphid spread and persistence, and if so, how do they interact with one another, and how are they distributed in the urban space of Ann Arbor.

To answer these questions, we will capture migrating aphids, rear them under lab conditions, and determine whether any natural enemies have infected them. When under stress, aphids produce wing-born offspring called alates, which are capable of dispersal flight. We are interested in tracking the dispersal of these alates as well as the dispersal of ladybird beetles and entomopathogenic fungi throughout all of the Project Grow gardens in Ann Arbor.

Project Grow is composed of 18 gardens dispersed throughout the city. Using a combination of field surveys and GIS mapping, we will compare how aphids, lady beetle predators, and aphid-attacking fungi disperse through our local urban environment.

Volunteers can expect to gain experience in field identification of insects, lab identification of fungal spores, dynamic host/pathogen/predator population modeling, GIS, and possible genetic analyses (PCR, DNA sequencing and alignment).


Workload and Time Frame

4/17/2012 to 7/31/2012

Volunteers will be expected to commit around 40 hours per week to this project.  Training will start the week of April 17th, with actual field excursions to begin after the frost date, April 21st.

If interested, please submit the following application form, along with a C.V., an unofficial transcript from your current school and one letter of recommendation to Theresa Wei Ying Ong (weiyingo@umich.edu) by March 31, 2012. Positions are limited, and accepted on a rolling basis.


This is a non-paid volunteer research assistant position under the mentorship of PhD student, Theresa Wei Ying Ong at the University of Michigan. If you are a first or second year undergraduate student, consider seeking funding for this project through the EEB ED-QUEST Program: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/eeb/undergraduates/reu/default.asp


Theresa studied Biology and Chinese at Williams College before receiving her Masters degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. She is currently in her first year of PhD work under the mentorship of Professor John H. Vandermeer. Her main interests involve theoretical ecology in agroecosystems, in particular, dynamical pest-pathogen-predator systems and their migration through urban space. Visit her website at the University of Michigan, here: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/eeb/directory/graduates/weiyingo/default.asp for more information.