Undergraduate Research Opportunities

The general goal of research in my lab is to understand what determines vegetation structure and the flows of energy and nutrients (i.e., function) in ecosystems. Climate is the principal determinant of ecosystem structure and function at the regional spatial scale. For example, the distributions of forest, grassland, and desert across the globe are determined by mean annual temperature and precipitation. Within those regions, plant species composition and nutrient and energy flows are primarily controlled by soil properties that are, to a large extent, influenced by topography. For instance, soil at the base of a slope is more fertile and moist than that at the top of the slope, which affects nutrient cycling and what species grow at those sites. In addition, in some ecosystems, e.g., grasslands, animals also can play an important role in determining ecosystem properties.

The focus of work in my lab has been to study how climate, topography, and grazing by elk and bison interact to determine grassland plant species composition and energy and nutrient dynamics in Yellowstone Park. Field studies have included measuring grassland species composition, primary production, elk and bison consumption of that production, and rates of nitrogen cycling. In the laboratory, we have examined carbon and nitrogen flows in soils collected from grazed and ungrazed areas to examine how elk and bison influence soil processes. In addition, we’ve performed greenhouse studies on plants collected in Yellowstone to understand how defoliation and nutrient availability affect plant growth and morphology.

Students who join the lab will initially need to read the pertinent scientific literature as they formulate, with my help, a research question that interests them. These studies would not necessarily be restricted to questions concerning Yellowstone Park; they could include local habitats, as long as the research is feasible to accomplish in my lab. Because of the time required to read and study the literature, formulate a testable hypothesis, and perform the research, students should anticipate the project taking at least 1.5 – 2 years. Students who complete studies may be encouraged to write them up for publication in an appropriate scientific journal.

Restrictions: Prerequisite of BIO 345: Evolution and Community Ecology