By Karl Roeder, Ph.D.
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Rebecca Prather, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher within the Division of Organic Science at Florida State College. Her present analysis on the Rocky Mountain Organic Laboratory focuses on phenological shifts of a number of taxa in response to varied climatic components. Beforehand, Rebecca earned a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology with Michael Kaspari, Ph.D., on the College of Oklahoma by analyzing how varied environmental drivers construction insect communities in prairie ecosystems. Beneath, we ask Rebecca a number of questions on her analysis and why she is occupied with prairies.
Roeder: Had been you all the time occupied with bugs?
Prather: Just about. As a child I spent most of my recesses attempting to find caterpillars or different bugs, and I keep in mind getting in hassle for ruining a number of outfits with numerous mud whereas I used to be digging for bugs. By most of my childhood, I spent a variety of time outdoor exploring the pure world.
As I approached school, I didn’t know of any careers finding out bugs, so I made a decision I’d examine biology and change into a health care provider. My second yr of faculty I took an ecology course, and mid-semester my ecology professor invited me to work in his lab. On my first day, he confirmed me an ant colony beneath a microscope. Seeing an insect that intently was a transformational expertise for me and solidified my love of bugs, particularly of ants. By speaking to my professor, I realized that analysis was a viable profession possibility and knew that was the route I wished to pursue.
I started working alone analysis challenge within the lab, finding out inter- and intraspecific competitors in two acorn-dwelling ant species, Temnothorax curvispinosus and T. longispinosus. The extra I realized about ants, the extra I fell in love with them. As I approached my remaining yr of undergrad, I started wanting into ant ecology labs for graduate faculty, and the remainder is historical past.
Throughout your Ph.D., you labored rather a lot with insect communities in prairies. Why have been you interested by that subject?
From my undergraduate analysis experiences engaged on leaf litter ants, I knew I wished to do a dissertation that was closely based mostly on subject work. Prairies have been an apparent place to start, as they’re throughout Oklahoma.
The primary summer season of my Ph.D., I wished to raised be taught the native grassland ant species, so I began a weekly baiting challenge analyzing foraging preferences for various vitamins. I baited as soon as per week at three separate instances of day to try to seize your complete ant group. I ended up persevering with this challenge for 8 months and, throughout that point, grew to become extra occupied with not simply ants however within the many bugs and interactions taking place in grasslands.
Particularly, I grew to become extra occupied with all of the interconnected drivers that decide insect group construction, and I wished to understand how these communities can be affected by future local weather eventualities and anthropogenic results like nutrient runoff. I like prairies as a result of from a distance it looks like not a lot is happening, however while you cease and take a minute you see a whole bunch of interactions between bugs occurring in any given second.
In the event you continued to work in prairie ecosystems, what query, speculation, or subject pursuits you probably the most? And why?
Meals high quality together with macro- and micro-nutrient concentrations obtainable to herbivores and pollinators pursuits me. I’m fascinated by how totally different crops purchase vitamins and the way that in flip can have an effect on the insect group. Throughout my Ph.D., I began a literature search on grassland fertilization experiments, which was a meta-analysis analyzing how vitamins have an effect on grassland bugs throughout trophic ranges. From that, I realized that micronutrients are understudied in subject experiments and that not a lot is thought about how pollinators reply to micronutrients.
As everyone knows, pollination is a key ecosystem service supplied by bugs, so going ahead I’d be occupied with finding out how micronutrients may alter plant traits and the way these different traits have an effect on pollinators and pollination charges.
What’s the most fascinating analysis problem that you’ve encountered, and what was your strategy to fixing it?
Throughout my Ph.D., I used to be engaged on a challenge finding out foraging danger versus reward with the crimson imported hearth ant (Solenopsis invicta). Particularly, I used to be occupied with how far a employee would journey to succeed in meals of various high quality if there’s a excessive chance of overheating and demise whereas foraging. The concept was that staff would solely be prepared to danger demise if the reward was good (i.e., high-quality meals).
I first tried utilizing a food regimen frequent in lab diet experiments, which consisted of sugar and protein in an agar base, with the concept that I might dilute the quantity of sugar and protein to vary bait high quality. Nonetheless, after I did a trial run, I couldn’t get a single ant to forage on even my high-quality bait positioned proper subsequent to a nest. I knew I wanted to attempt one thing else, so I went again to the drafting board and determined I might merely use sugar water baits with totally different sugar concentrations, as I had beforehand used these to successfully bait different ant species.
Once I tried out a sugar bait, I attracted all of the species in my examine space besides for S. invicta. At this level, subject season was quickly approaching and I used to be starting to panic. I learn extra research and seen that hotdogs have been typically used to bait S. invicta, so I attempted placing hotdog slices out and obtained quite a few S. invicta at my baits. Now I had a food regimen that might entice hearth ants however didn’t know if I might pursue my preliminary line of inquiry as a result of I assumed I wouldn’t be capable of change hotdog high quality. I discussed this dilemma to my husband, and he responded, “Why can’t you dilute a hotdog?”
His query made me re-examine my assumptions. If I put a hotdog in a blender, I might combine totally different quantities of hotdog paste into an agar answer to realize baits of upper and decrease high quality. I attempted these baits and located to my delight that I might get S. invicta foraging on my three totally different baits! I used to be ready to make use of these baits to run my experiment that subject season. Much less delightedly, I haven’t wished to a lot as have a look at a hotdog since. General, that problem helped me use extra out-of-the-box pondering to unravel different issues that arose in fieldwork throughout my dissertation.
As a postdoctoral researcher at FSU, you might have shifted gears and are actually working with long-term knowledge and phenological shifts. May you inform us extra about the primary targets of your present analysis?
My present postdoctoral analysis focuses on understanding how local weather change is affecting an organism’s phenology. I’ve two ongoing initiatives.
First, I’m engaged on sustaining a long-term flower phenology dataset. Researchers on the Rocky Mountain Organic Lab (RMBL) have been accumulating knowledge on plant phenology in the identical plots since 1973 with the purpose of analyzing how phenology has modified over time with local weather. This challenge entails accumulating phenology knowledge every summer season at RMBL to proceed constructing the dataset. Working in montane grasslands may be very totally different from the mixed-grass prairies I labored in throughout my dissertation. I like all grasslands, however I’ve to say I do benefit from the cooler climate throughout fieldwork in Colorado.
Second, RMBL has many principal investigators (PIs) who’ve been accumulating knowledge on the abundance and phenology of a wide range of taxa for a few years. I’m working with these PIs on two synthesis initiatives. For the primary challenge, I’m analyzing how phenology is altering throughout taxa based mostly on totally different local weather drivers. It’s neat to see that some drivers have an effect on crops, bugs, mammals, and amphibians, whereas others solely have an effect on bugs, for example. For the second challenge, I’m engaged on analyzing how abundance of various taxa has modified over time based mostly on local weather drivers. Each initiatives are thrilling, and it has felt good to have the ability to use the coding and statistics I realized throughout my dissertation.
How has the shift out of your dissertation work to your postdoctoral work been? Any recommendation for graduate college students making that transition?
Throughout my dissertation, I realized rather a lot about how bugs are responding to abiotic stressors in prairies. As I approached the top of my graduate research, I felt like I had a great grasp on insect group ecology however was lacking a deeper understanding of plant group ecology. I knew I wished to proceed finding out plant-insect interactions after my Ph.D., so I attempted to discover a postdoc that might assist me fill in my information gaps.
The transition was difficult at first as a result of I had a variety of new literature to understand, and, with the temporary nature of postdoc positions, I wanted to rise up to hurry as shortly as attainable. I constructed a powerful group in graduate faculty, so on a extra private stage I discovered transitioning to a postdoc in a brand new state throughout the pandemic tough, because it has been more durable to make new connections. My recommendation to graduate college students making the transition to a postdoc is to be form to your self and provides your self time to regulate to the brand new lab, city, and probably new examine system.
Lastly, what’s your favourite insect and why?
My favourite insect is Temnothorax curvispinosus. I studied this species throughout my undergrad, and it was by way of my time engaged on it that I found my ardour for group ecology. I’m fascinated generally by cavity-nesting ant species, particularly ones that nest in outdated acorns or twigs beforehand inhabited by different organisms.
Thanks Rebecca! You’ll be able to be taught extra about Rebecca’s work at her web site: https://rmprather.wordpress.com/.
Karl Roeder, Ph.D., is a analysis entomologist with the USDA-Agricultural Analysis Service in Brookings, South Dakota, and the North Central Department consultant to the ESA Early Profession Professionals Committee. E mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photographs courtesy of Rebecca Prather, Ph.D.