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Ecology and evolution in changing environments: Mechanisms to Responses

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Overview. The Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site: ‘Ecology and Evolution in Changing Environments: Mechanisms to Responses’ will provide research experiences and professional development for talented undergraduate students in the biological sciences. Students will gain practical research skills in molecular techniques, field methods, experimental design, and research ethics by conducting independent research projects under the guidance of experienced research scientists. Mentors will benefit through opportunities to direct summer projects with enthusiastic undergraduates who are seeking specialized training in new research areas. Other activities of our REU Site Program are designed for professional development of the undergraduate participants. A weekly seminar in Modern Approaches in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology will educate students about current questions, cutting-edge methodology, and data analysis. Field trips will provide additional educational opportunities by visiting important natural areas, biological collections, and large genomic centers in the Midwest. Students will develop skills in public speaking by presenting results in 4-minute “lightning talks” early in the program and professional meeting-style oral presentations in a Research Symposium at the conclusion of the 10-week summer program. The REU Site Program will provide students with a stipend of $5,000 and cover the costs of accommodation, food, and travel to and from Manhattan, Kansas. For many participants, the program will be a stepping-stone from undergraduate studies to graduate research programs. For others, the program will offer research experiences that will provide a foundation for applying modern approaches in ecology and evolution to careers in education, government agencies, environmental consulting, and other professions.

Research themes. Nearly all ecosystems on the planet are currently experiencing environmental change. These changes are the result of significant shifts in the global climate, alteration of land use and fragmentation of ecosystems, and modifications in nutrient cycles. Modifications in the biotic and abiotic environment on a worldwide scale have resulted in cascading responses at many levels of ecological interactions. Well-documented cases of ecological responses to changing environments include shifts in flowering time, photoperiodism in insects, seasonal phenology and shifting thermal-stress response clines. Additionally, studies have demonstrated the role of a changing environment on species interactions and higher-level ecosystem function. Organismal, population, and community level responses to changing environments have been dramatic. Investigations of biological responses to the changing global environment have led to a greater focus on proximate mechanisms in ecology and evolutionary biology. A shift towards understanding mechanisms is essential, because it is ultimately the genetic, physiological, developmental, and ecological mechanisms that will mediate responses to novel environments. A comprehensive mechanistic understanding is critical to accurately predicting future responses as environments continue to change.

K-State is uniquely positioned to address the mechanistic basis of biological responses to changing environments across multiple levels of organization. Many of the REU faculty mentors are national and international leaders in integrative biology, grassland ecology, and evolutionary biology. Faculty associated with the Ecological Genomics Institute (EGI) and Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research (Konza LTER) seek to understand the mechanisms that underlie organismal, population, and community responses to changes in natural environments. During the last decade, EGI has successfully focused on genetic and genomic drivers. Konza LTER has 30-year history of documenting organismal, population, and community responses to fire, grazing and climatic variation as environmental drivers which has become increasingly mechanistic in the last 15 years. Thus, the foundation is in place to align the K-State Biology REU Site program with K-State’s increasingly mechanistic focus to the study of ecology and evolution through the EGI and Konza LTER programs. Synergy between EGI and Konza LTER is novel in that our resources allow us to integrate mechanistic knowledge from genes to ecosystems. By building on our strengths in ecology, evolutionary biology, and ecological genomics, the K-State Biology REU will begin training of the next generation of students in mechanistic integrative ecology and evolutionary biology.

Resources for the REU Site Program in Biology at Kansas State University (K-State) are unique. First, EGI provides an outstanding intellectual environment, as well as resources and logistical support for integrated research that investigate gene and genomic function of organisms in changing environments. The EGI has a core of 25 faculty members (including 11 women) from six departments in three colleges. The EGI has major instrumentation and software to support genomic research, including next-generation sequencing technology. Second, REU field projects can be conducted at Konza Prairie Biological Station in northeast Kansas, the largest natural reserve of tallgrass prairie dedicated to ecological research in North America.  Konza Prairie has been a core research site in the NSF Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network since 1981, and is one of the most intensively studied grasslands in the world. Konza Prairie offers a range of lab space, permanent instrumentation and field vehicles for student use. The Konza LTER program offers access to research sites associated with new and ongoing field experiments and long-term ecological datasets. Third, the Division of Biology at K-State will provide administrative support for the REU Site Program, as well as specialized research facilities, including labs for mass spectrometry and microscopy. Mentors are experienced faculty who work in a diverse range of ecological and evolutionary questions but are all linked by the mechanistic focus.


Research Overview

Division of Biology