Associate Professor of Biology Thomas Mozdzer has received nearly $2 million from the National Science Foundation for a new program that bridges the fields of ecosystem ecology with evolutionary biology.
Mozdzer's research sets out to address a novel question: does rapid evolution to global change influence how ecosystems function? Ecologists used to think evolution was too slow to affect their studies, but research from Mozdzer’s lab says otherwise.
To answer this question, Mozdzer and his fellow researchers aim to determine how both nutrient pollution and elevated levels of carbon dioxide are inducing rapid evolution in plant communities on the invasive common reed Phragmites australis in a salt marsh on the Chesapeake Bay.
Fieldwork for the project will be conducted at the Smithsonian Global Change Research Wetland of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and at a 600-genotype quantitative genetic common garden that is being set up on the Bryn Mawr campus. At the Bryn Mawr garden, researchers will measure heritability of plant traits that will be linked to ecosystem processes including carbon cycling and greenhouse gas emissions.
Nearly $1.4 million of the NSF funding will support Mozdzer's research at Bryn Mawr. That funding will pay for two to three Bryn Mawr undergraduates to work as researchers each year, a post-doctoral researcher, and a full-time research assistant. Scientists Melissa McCormick, at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and Michael J. Blum, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will also collaborate on the project.
"This is among the first grants from NSF in my division that was developed to bridge ecosystem ecology and evolutionary biology," says Mozdzer. “We are very excited about potential implications. Not only will we advance our understanding of how ecosystems function, we will also improve predictive models of ecosystem responses to near future change. In addition, knowledge gained from this study will foster more effective restoration and management programs.”
Since 2012, 22 students have conducted research in Mozdzer’s laboratory, including six students currently working in his lab during the 2020-2021 academic year. Twelve students have presented their research at regional or international research conferences. Due to the students substantial contributions, 11 undergraduate students have earned authorship on eight of the 33 peer-reviewed manuscripts published since his time at Bryn Mawr College.
The Bryn Mawr College Department of Biology has a long history of providing research training for undergraduate students in biology. The participation of undergraduates in active research projects is encouraged through supervised research (Biology 400/403) as well as through a summer research program in the sciences.