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Ecology Professor Receives NSF Grant to Research Global Change Affecting Ecosystems

Stephanie KivlinStephanie Kivlin, assistant professor in the UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB), and co-principal investigators, Susan Kalisz and Nick Smith, received a $3.58 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to fund collaborative research for their project “Defining the mechanisms and consequences of mutualism reorganization in the Anthropocene.”

Kivlin and her colleague Kalisz, EEB professor, received $2.33 million of the grant, while Smith, assistant professor in Department of Biological Sciences at Texas Tech University, received the remaining funding.

The five-year study will allow Kivlin and her colleagues to research the symbiotic relationships between plants and fungi and how global changes, including invasive species, affect them.

“Our current collaborative NSF integrative biology grant will investigate how invasive plants disrupt native plant and mycorrhizal fungal associations from small-scale nutrient fluxes to native plant health, composition, and ecosystem carbon and nutrient cycles,” Kivlin said.

The project builds off decades of Kalisz’s NSF-funded long-term research in environmental biology studies at the Trillium Trail in Pittsburgh that focused on the effects of the presence of garlic mustard, a highly invasive plant species, on native plant species.

“Plant invasions are one of the largest impacts of human land-use across Earth, but the effects of invasions on belowground processes have largely been unexplored. Our project will unearth these hidden effects so society can be better prepared to mitigate detrimental effects on native plants in the future,” Kivlin said.

There is not currently enough information about how interactions between plants and fungi respond to climate and land-use change because these interactions tend to be hidden and widely dispersed.

“Fundamental knowledge from our work will determine how global change will disrupt interactions among organisms in natural ecosystems. Many plants and animals, like humans, rely on their microbiome to survive and thus, it is crucial that we understand how these interactions will perform under future conditions,” Kivlin said.

Undergraduate students in underrepresented groups from rural Appalachia who otherwise would not have the opportunity to engage in research will be given the chance to do so. Students will conduct laboratory experiments at UT and will partake in field experiments in Pittsburgh.

Story by Jessica Foshee