Armed with ruler and $ 1 million grant, VCU professor studies variation in functional traits in plants – VCU News


Due to climate change, many places around the world are experiencing increasing climate variability. Understanding the causes and consequences of this variability in natural systems is becoming increasingly important.

The National Science Foundation awarded a grant of $ 1.06 million to Catherine Hulshof, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of biology at the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University to develop a model for predicting variability of the function of plants through scales of biological organization, from organisms to ecosystems.

“One of the most popular models in ecology is that the number of species increases with increasing area,” Hulshof said. “This pattern is true for all ecosystems on Earth. What we don’t know is what these species do and how they work. Understanding the function of plants is an important part of understanding global processes like the carbon cycle. “

More specifically, the research will involve the quantification of the properties emerging from the variation in functional traits of plants. Plant functional traits – or traits that define a plant’s growth strategy, such as leaf area, plant height, and seed size – are easy and inexpensive to measure and are key links with the environment, providing a cost-effective way to predict responses of species and ecosystems to climate change, Hulshof said.

“For example, measuring leaf area or seed size can reveal the rate of growth or photosynthesis of a plant. Only a ruler is needed to make these kinds of measurements, ”she said. “This project will measure the functional diversity of plants in temperate and tropical forests. This project could indicate universal patterns in the way organisms and ecosystems are organized in space and time.

The study, “Predicting Variation in Plant Functional Traits Across Spatial, Temporal, and Biological Scales,” received funding through the faculty’s Career Development Program, which offers the most prestigious awards of the National Science Foundation in support of early career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead progress in the mission of their department or organization.

Hulshof’s Biodiversity Research Lab studies plant diversity on a global scale, using data science to better understand complex patterns and processes.

“We work in tropical and temperate forests with small undergrowth grasses and tall trees. We use functional plant traits because the traits democratize ecology. Anyone in the world with access to basic scientific equipment can measure functional traits, ”she said. “We also rely on open data and open science principles because these empower anyone to participate in science. “

The project will address a nationwide need for training in data literacy and data science, said Hulshof, skills in high demand in STEM careers. The research will also support the professional development of VCU students from under-represented groups and involve training that highlights the diversity, creativity and democratization of ecology through open science.

“As a Chicana faculty, much of my research is designed to increase diversity and representation in STEM by engaging under-represented students at VCU,” Hulshof said.

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