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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Benedictine College student studies the impacts of fire severity on fungi

Hannah Dea
     When Hannah Dea took a Mycology course at Benedictine College, taught by Dr. Janet Paper, she became “fascinated by the enormous role that fungi play in the life and health of plants.” She especially enjoyed learning about mycorrhizal fungi, the fungi that form a mutualist relationship with the root systems of plants as well as provide plants with nutrients. Because of this course, she wanted to continue researching ecological topics, so she found and decided to apply to the 2018 Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) summer research experience for undergraduates (REU) at the University of Kansas (KU).
     Upon her acceptance into the EEB REU program, Hannah chose a fungi research project that paired her with Dr. Benjamin Sikes, Assistant Professor of EEB at KU, Assistant Scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey, and Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006 titled: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas plant systems research team member. She titled her project Fire severity effects on ectomycorrhizal colonization of Longleaf pine and Loblolly pine. Hannah explained her research project as follows:
Hannah analyzing ectos roots
“My project looked at how fire severity affects the relationship between microbial communities and soil nutrients and how this in turn affects a fire tolerant and a non-fire tolerant species of pine. I wanted to find out whether a more severe fire, which would kill off the microbial communities and release nutrients from the soil, would make the soil conditions more favorable to the fire tolerant Longleaf pine or to the non-fire tolerant Loblolly pine. My hypothesis was that, since fire tolerant species are more accustomed to fire affected soils, the fire tolerant species would be benefited by increasing fire severity while non-fire tolerant species would not. To test this, after both species were grown in high, medium, and low severity fire soil for 3 months, I took the percent colonization of ectomycorrhizae (a fungal mutualist on the plant roots essential for nutrient uptake) on both species of pine as well as the biomass of each plant. I found that while the biomass of the two species did not differ, the Longleaf pine had a much more efficient relationship with the ectomycorrhizae than the Loblolly pine. This showed that the fire tolerant species had a bit of an advantage over the non-fire tolerant species."
     When she was asked what the best part of her summer research experience was, she replied “My favorite part of the experience was living in a research community that allowed me to focus on sharpening my research skills. There were so many resources at KU that allowed me to do science without hindrance from lack of help or resources. I love plant and fungal ecology, and this allowed me to dive into it for a whole summer!” She added that the experience taught her how to conduct research, create good questions, make predictions, collect and analyze data and to communicate science “in a way that even non-scientists would understand.”
     Hannah is from Templeton, Iowa and is majoring in Biology with a minor in Latin at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS. She is a student leader involved with Campus Ministries, and she assists with organizing and setting up masses on campus. Hannah has also been an officer in the Biology Club and is currently a Latin tutor for the college. Participating in this EEB REU reaffirmed her desire to pursue a career as a conservation biologist, an educator, and/or a naturalist. She plans to earn her masters degree in ecology after graduation.