Research Statement

version 25 August 2019

I investigate multiple dimensions of terrestrial ecology, employing the tools and analytics as needed to build research that elucidates the spatiotemporal patterns and processes of fungi, plants and their associated organisms – in light of global change (atmospheric chemistry, climate change, land-use change and pollution). This includes understanding microbial diversity in soils, biogeochemical patterns of organisms at large spatial scales by land-use type, and global change impacts to the soil microbiota with altered atmospheric chemistry. I do so because my passion is to understand natural and anthropogenic determinants of species, their assemblages and biotic associations, from the micro- to the macro- scale, and especially related to future global change consequences.

Vision.

My goals are to lead, coordinate and conduct ecological and conservation-based research related to fungi, plants and the soils that they live within – within a global change backdrop – and combined with education across demographics, i.e., students, the general public, scientists and policy-makers, on our contemporary knowledge – as well as the gaps – and the implications. I strive to, especially, shift public awareness towards better understanding how integral fungi, plants, and their interactions, are for natural systems as well as societies and the policies implemented.

A global change backdrop for a forward perspective.

Human interactions with the environment directly and indirectly impact natural systems. As I am inherently curious about how the natural environment will change with time and due to global change consequences of human impact, these topics are overall themes for the majority of my research. Within that context, I investigate ecological concepts of macroecology, biogeography, community ecology, landscape dynamics, and conservation biology.

Throughout my academic career, I have focused on multiple dimensions of global change. During my PhD research, I investigated how increased tropospheric carbon dioxide and ozone feedback through forest trees to their ectomycorrhizal fungal symbionts, in terms of species composition, productivity and respiration. Even earlier, I specialized in community ecology related to plants and fungi, with research topics in both restoration as well as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal ecology. Following my PhD research, I next investigated nitrogen deposition and abatement on ectomycorrhizal fungi, in addition to my employment instructing undergraduate students in biology subjects. I next transitioned into full-time postdoctoral research (4 years after my PhD was awarded), and have from this point forward focused on global change impacts to fungi in Europe, with published research demonstrating the importance of climate, land-use change, and biotic components to the phenology, assemblage, diversity and distributional patterns of fungi in Europe. I am currently building towards integrating my many experiences while continuing to address global change impacts to terrestrial systems in terms of ecology and conservation.

Fungi and plants: a terrestrial research focus.

Early as an undergraduate student, I found myself conflicted between specializing in botany or mycology, thinking both fields fascinating, and especially mycology with so many unanswered ecological questions, that I thought, ‘What could be better, perhaps, then to study both fungi and plants, two organisms importantly associated, but with yet so much still to learn about them?’ This most concisely explains the inherent fascination I formed then – and still have – to plant and fungal ecology. Fungi are the primary organisms of research interest to me, though not far favored over plants, and both due to their mycorrhizal symbioses – which clearly demonstrate how ecologically important species interactions are in the natural environment. It is the integration of botanical research with mycological research, bridging the fields, that I find most interesting and relevant to ecology. My focus on forested systems is in much part due to the dominance of this terrestrial land type, as well as the ubiquitous nature of the mycorrhizal symbiosis in these systems, and their contributions to ecosystem processes of carbon and nutrient cycling. I, also, focused on forestry science during my graduate studies and research. However, I come from lands on the ecotonal border of past glaciations, where prairies were tilled to croplands, so that I additionally understand the influence of agriculture to land-use change impacts of natural lands. Prairies, their diversity, and the loss of their extent to under 1% remnant patches remaining, were what first caught my interest in ecology.

I have field and lab experience in plant and fungal identification, their natural ecologies, and how they interact. Forest systems, especially, I have focused on, for example in field studies of fungi in aspen-birch forests as well as oak forests (however, I also have worked within prairies and oak savannas, and have ecological knowledge on all Midwestern, and growing knowledge on central and northern European, plant systems). My research regarding plants and fungi spans the breadth of ecological scales: from community-level studies employing molecular identification techniques, to ecosystem-scales concerned more with carbon cycling, to the continental scale, describing large-scale patterns – and all this within a backdrop of global change. Ecological topics in mycology and botany are of future research priority, and forests favored, though not exclusive.

On the importance of soil.

While my organismal passion is with respect to the ecology of fungi and plants, this is why I consider soil and its processes of high research importance. Without soil, there are far fewer plants and fungi, which themselves are critical components of soil; in other words, the interrelatedness of soil and the organisms that live and grow within it are the causes for my interest in it.

Soil is particles and decomposed life, but it is also the stability and material for new life and growth. Thus, soil can be seen as many things: Firstly, as an impressive result of an extensive process of long-term glaciations, sedimentations and weathering, combined with decomposition, stabilization and filtering, and patterned by geography, climate, and vegetation into the accumulation of rock particles, organic matter and minerals, and all in varied forms of complexity and stabilization. However, soil can also be viewed as a loss, for example literally of material – and especially carbon and nutrients – via land-use change, such as with intensive agriculture and forestry, and especially in combination with the impacts of rain, wind, or fire. Soil is also lost but remaining, should it be polluted by toxic accumulations, or dried and fissured by droughts. Variances in soil tell stories of the land: the spongy duff-covered ground of spruce or hemlock forests, which dampened the sounds of the footsteps of past and present peoples, is an artifact of climate, plant succession, local environmental aspects and episodic disturbances. Sand-dominated lands suitable for well-drained crops are often remnants of glacial lakebeds, while chalk-downs of rare meadows are only possible from the sedimentation of Cretaceous calcite marine organisms. The espresso color, possible to see in spring with tilled land, of certain regions resulted from root-bound prairies, of which the last round of glaciers failed to reach, though the plough easily did. Soil varies in salinity by lands and past oceanic boundaries, and even the colorations indicate metallic or elemental presences, as well as the extent of organic matter. Soil is the basis for most of terrestrial life; few organisms live on rock-exposed surfaces, but biodiversity levels rapidly increase during the process of building and accumulating soil. Finally, soil can be seen as the forgotten connection to land, when covered by pavement, minimized to dust on wind, or kicked up by cars on rural roads. The metaphorical sweeping of soil under the rug disconnects people from nature and, hence, environmental ethics.

Data-driven research.

I have, during my research career, focused on three main research methodologies: experimental field and laboratory techniques; data ‘wrangling’ and integration with open-source data; and novel statistical analyses. These are all key components to assist ecological research. It is imperative that collaborative laboratory conditions are fostered which allow multiple research groups to utilize cutting-edge technology and to share knowledge, especially in relation to experimental and analysis techniques. My own experiences across labs and utilizing differing DNA molecular identification technologies ((T)RFLP, direct sequencing, high throughput) have taught me that to stay current in this field, communication and collaborative lab resources are key.

Big data assembly, formatting and managing (‘wrangling’), primarily from digital data (museum plus citizen science) and open-source geospatial data, is a field that I have considerable experience with. As an increasingly useful methodology to answer complex ecological questions with, I intend to maintain a strong focus on data science in future research. Novel statistical analyses can address previously unanswerable questions and, thus, are similarly crucial to retain specialization within. I have worked considerably in R, a useful program for assembling, formatting and analyzing large datasets via many statistical techniques (linear, additive, mixed, multivariate, geospatial). As with data science, I plan to continue utilizing R as a foundation for analyzing big data, although with the addition of other methodologies as helps move research and techniques forward. Extensive open-source data can pioneer ecological research into new fields of inquiry, and is, thus, fundamental for future research.

It is not my research, it is our research.

It is important to consider not only how my research will benefit my goals, but even more-so how it will help those of others. Students and researchers need to be challenged intellectually, as well as to be taught meaningful skills for their own career growth; my research will bridge computational data management and statistics with field-oriented ecological and environmental research, as well as lab skills. In terms of lab members, ideally this will provide a wide array of possible opportunities for student education, research experience, and outreach. In terms of surrounding researchers and staff, I hope we can maintain an open, friendly environment to share techniques and brainstorm solutions to potential scientific problems. I will strive for collaborative, complementary research, both locally and internationally, contributing to contemporary ecological issues and building fundamental knowledge that helps not only me, but more importantly, students, researchers, the scientific community and, ideally, the public and future policies.