Environmental Change Initiative
2011 Voss Postdoctoral Scholars Chosen
June 14, 2011—Complex environmental challenges require collaboration across disciplines. The Environmental Change Initiative invests in new research foci through its Postdoctoral Scholar Program, which supports early-career scientists in pursuing projects with the potential to link existing research strengths at Brown. The program provides an outstanding opportunity for recent PhD scientists to develop an independent research agenda by drawing on the expertise and guidance of Brown and MBL faculty working in related fields. In turn, the energy and creativity of these young researchers allow Brown faculty and students to explore new collaborations. ECI is pleased to announce that Radika Bhaskar and Matthew Heard have been chosen as the 2011 ECI Postdoctoral Scholars. Their appointments are made possible through the generous contribution of Peter and Pamela Voss.
Does Diversity Affect Soil Fertility?
Radika Bhaskar earned her PhD from Stanford in 2006, and is currently studying plant water use strategies in highly diverse tropical dry forests in Mexico, based at the National Autonomous University of Mexico with funding from NSF’s International Research Fellowship Program. At Brown, she will investigate the relationship between land use history, plant diversity, and soil fertility working with Assistant Professor Stephen Porder, who specializes in soil nutrient cycling, and Assistant Professor Erika Edwards, who studies the evolutionary patterns of plant traits. Bhaskar’s project looks at diversity from two distinct, but related, perspectives. Human development encroaching on natural systems often results in the loss of species diversity, reducing the number of species present in a region. Functional diversity, in contrast, is the range of characteristics that a plant community expresses, regardless of the number of species present. Functional diversity is especially important for understanding the ability of natural systems to respond to changes and continue providing the ecosystem services that people have come to expect (such as clean water, fertile soil, food, and the ability to draw carbon out of the atmosphere). She will examine whether leaf characteristics, such as size, thickness, and chemical composition influence soil fertility more than species diversity does – and will also examine how past land use affects such characteristics. The proposed work will focus on forests in and adjacent to the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, in western Mexico. The Reserve contains one of the largest areas of diverse, well-preserved tropical dry forest stands in the world and adjacent agricultural sites provide an exceptional opportunity to compare plants and soils in intact forest, regenerating forest, and active agricultural systems.
What Can Human Disease Ecology Tell Us about Emerging Diseases in Wildlife?
Matthew Heard is completing his PhD in Ecology at Brown University, working with Assistant Professor Dov Sax on the topic of species invasions in local plant communities. For his ECI postdoctoral project, Heard will pick up another thread of his work over the past few years – conservation medicine. He will be working with Assistant Professor Kate Smith and Professor Stephen McGarvey to apply lessons learned from the study of human infectious disease to global trends in wildlife infectious disease. Both humans and wildlife are vulnerable to diseases that spread into new geographic area or a new host species, known as emerging infectious diseases. In humans, the emergence of such diseases is well-studied and often related to land use change or increasing population density in a region that had been sparsely populated. But researchers have little information on whether similar factors control the spread of such diseases in wildlife. Heard’s project extends work that was begun under the ECI-funded Conservation Working Group to look for the socio-economic and environmental factors that might help predict trends in wildlife disease, especially among already threatened species.
A Growing Network
Heard and Bhaskar join James Hull, a 2009 ECI postdoctoral scholar studying the role of social networks, exchange networks, and social capital in determining household livelihood decisions, wellbeing, and other choices regarding land use and migration. Another 2009 postdoctoral scholar, Sheila Walsh, recently took a position with the Nature Conservancy as an ecosystem services analyst with their central science division, using her experience in economic analysis and ecosystem ecology to explore the connection between intact ecosystems and the services that people value.
The Environmental Change Initiative Postdoctoral Scholars help expand interdisciplinary research on environmental questions at Brown through the research they pursue and the students they mentor, by linking individual researchers, and by forming connections among their home departments. As they leave Brown and launch their own academic careers, they will continue to build connections that reflect well on Brown.