I am interested in the effects of plant species and biodiversity on ecosystem function, and specifically, in understanding how interactions between plants and soil microbes regulate important below-ground processes such as decomposition, soil nutrient cycling, and soil carbon cycling. Decomposition and soil carbon and nutrient cycling are tightly linked, and together are critical controls on ecosystem functions like productivity, soil C storage, and soil nutrient availability. My work also focuses on interactions between plant species, soil microbes, and the cycling of carbon and nitrogen within the context of environmental changes like biodiversity loss, rising concentrations of atmospheric CO2, and nitrogen deposition.
At present, I fill the shoes of the Plant Ecologist at the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON Inc.), which is a non-profit company funded by the National Science Foundation. NEON's mission is to build a continent-wide network of sites that will collect data associated with the impacts of climate change, land-use change, and invasive species on ecosystem structure, function, and biodiversity. NEON is designed to operate for the next 30 years, and will be the first observatory of its kind capable of detecting and enabling ecological forecasting at the continental scale over multiple decades.
My most recent post-doctoral work was as a research fellow in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, funded by a competitive grant from the USDA NRI Soil Processes program. Though currently working at NEON, I continue to oversee experimental work investigating how interactions between plant species and soil microbes influence carbon stabilization in soils, in collaboration with Dr. Jason Neff. Soils are the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, and it is critical to develop a better understanding of factors regulating storage and loss of carbon from soils.
I have also collaborated with Dr. Noah Fierer in the Dept. of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at CU to investigate the temperature sensitivity of fungal growth on wood in a wet tropical ecosystem in the Peruvian Amazon. The wet tropics contain a considerable quantity of chemically similar carbon in the form of decaying wood, leaf litter, and soil organic matter, and the Amazonian tropics are also projected to warm by as much as 4 °C over the next century. Taken together, these facts suggest it will be important to better understand how changes in temperature may influence the release of carbon from decomposing woody plant material to the atmosphere.
Other work that I have completed or am currently involved in includes: 1) using analyses of soil molecular structure to investigate whether there is a common decomposition sequence for soil organic matter across multiple biomes worldwide; 2) elucidating links between climatic variables, soil organic matter chemistry and soil carbon quality; and 3) experiments aimed at assessing the influence of plant root chemistry on neighboring plant growth and soil nutrient availability.
I finished a Ph.D. in Ecology in January 2008 in Dr. William Bowman's lab in the Dept. of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at CU. My dissertation research focused on the effects of plants on soil microbial activity, soil nutrient availability, and neighboring plant growth, as well as links between plant species diversity, plant litter chemistry, and below-ground components of ecosystem function that are regulated by soil microbes. I used an alpine ecosystem on Niwot Ridge, CO, as a model system for study. Niwot Ridge was an ideal research location, as it is part of the National Science Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research network, and has onsite research facilities at the University of Colorado's Mountain Research Station.