What we have been taught in our introductory level Ecology courses regarding mutualisms is a lie... Mutualisms seldom involve a 1-on-1, +/+ relationship; a darker, more sinister reality exists. Most mutualisms involve a suite of characters; some good, some bad, but most lie somewhere in the grey. These characters typically cheat, punish,and steal from their partners (just like any good relationship) and are typically associated with several different partners at any given time. This is a far cry from our happy bee friend pollinating a bright, colorful flower while the smiling sun watches adoringly, that we learned about in general ecology.
Broadly, I'm interested in all things mutualistic. More specifically, I'm interested in community interactions within belowground mutualistic communities and how they structure themselves on, in, and around plant roots. As if this wasn't cool enough on its own, I'm also interested in how environmental stress (climate change factors, drought, nutrient limitation, etc.) will alter the dynamics of these complex relationships and how these changes in structure and function feedback to influence plant hosts.
My research program explores the community ecology of plant symbioses and focuses in three overlapping areas: 1) What drives distributions of symbiotic communities across broad spatial ranges, 2) mechanistically, what drives the structure of symbiotic communities at smaller spatial scales (plant scale), and 3) How does symbiotic community structure link to community functioning? To explore these questions, I have been exploring both the mycorrhizal symbiosis and plant/bacterial symbioses as model systems, however I feel my research questions could be applicable to other plant-symbioses. My research combines the usage of natural climate gradients, mechanistic growth-chamber experiments, and manipulative field experiments to explore plant symbioses from cellular, individual, community, to ecosystem levels and integrates both plant and symbiont response variables.
1) To investigate the balance of abiotic and biotic factors that are structure mycorrhizal fungal communities, I'm investigating fungal communities along an elevational gradient at RMBL (Rocky Mountain Biological Lab). The argument of biotic versus abiotic factors has been a long-fought debate in ecology for several decades, but does the either/or debate correct? It seems commonplace that some balance between abiotic and biotic factors ultimately control community structure. One of the main questions I'm interested in pursuing is: Does the balance of abiotic vs biotic factors change as you move along an elevational gradient?
2) In conjunction with fellow UT graduate student Quentin Read, we are exploring the effect of anthropogenic warming and changes in plant community composition across disparate environmental contexts, we have established a manipulative experiment at several sites globally. We have established a series warming x dominant plant species removal experiments at low and high elevation at sites in Colorado, USA, China, Sweden, Switzerland, Argentina, Australia, Greenland in collaboration with a wide array of collaborators.
3) In addition to being interested in what drives symbiont communities at large spatial scales, I'm also interested in understanding what drives communities at small spatial scales. I have projects that look at plant host identity, plant mediation of partners, seasonality, and stochastic interactions in mycorrhizal communities.
4) So it is long been known that plant hosts alter their environment and select for a certain microbial community, however the ability of the microbial community to alter their plant host has only recently been given attention. Using constructed microbial communities, I am exploring microbially-mediated plant functional traits.
There is a pretty good chance that their are a few more projects included since I have finished writing this section...... If you have any questions or if you are interested in collaborating, send me an email.
Prior to starting my PhD in Tennessee, I worked primarily with AM fungi in the labs of James Bever at Indiana University working on a variety of projects from: measuring the influence of heavy deer herbivory upon AMF spore community composition, spore community structure under different host plants in a grassland reconstruction, to using 454 to address sporulation patterns across grasslands from throughout North America, and finally measuring mycorrhizal impact on boreal peatland plant productivity (in a nutshell, exploring fungal communites in a wide variety of systems). Prior to my time at IU, I worked with Stephen Bentivenga at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh where I completed my B.S. and M.S. There I learned AMF spore taxonomy and worked on AMF spore community composition within a reconstructed grassland that was manipulated by using plant seeding mixtures of differing diversity, nested within the seeding treatments, was a nitrogen and fungicide addition.
Lab Homepage: Ecosystem Ecology