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Armed with a ruler and a $1M grant, a VCU professor studies functional trait variation in plants

Biology professor Catherine Hulshof’s research, funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to help predict the responses of species and ecosystems to climate change.
various potted plants

As a result of climate change, many locations around the world are experiencing a growing amount of climatic variability. Understanding the causes and consequences of this variability of natural systems is becoming increasingly important.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $1.06 million grant to Catherine Hulshof, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University to develop a model for predicting the variability of plant function across scales of biological organization, from organisms to ecosystems.

“One of the most pervasive patterns in ecology is that the number of species increases with increasing area,” Hulshof said. “This pattern is true for all ecosystems on Earth. What we don't know is what those species are doing and how they are functioning. Understanding plant function is an important part of understanding global processes like the carbon cycle.”

Specifically, the research will involve the quantification of emergent properties of plant functional trait variation. Plant functional traits — or traits that define a plant's growth strategy, such as leaf area, plant height and seed size — are easy and inexpensive to measure and are key links to the environment, providing a cost-effective way to predict the responses of species and ecosystems to climate change, Hulshof said.

“For example, measuring leaf area or seed size can reveal how fast a plant is growing or photosynthesizing. Only a ruler is needed to make those kinds of measurements,” she said. “This project will measure plant functional diversity across temperate and tropical forests. This project could point to universal patterns in the way that organisms and ecosystems are organized across space and time.”

The study, “Predicting Plant Functional Trait Variation Across Spatial, Temporal and Biological Scales,” was awarded funding through the Faculty Early Career Development Program, which provides the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of early career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

Hulshof’s Biodiversity Research Laboratory studies plant diversity across global scales, using data science to better understand complex patterns and processes.

“We work in tropical and temperate forests with small understory herbs and tall trees. We use plant functional traits because traits democratize ecology. Anyone around the world with access to basic science equipment can measure functional traits,” she said. “We also rely on open data and open science principles because these allow anyone to participate in science.”

The project will address a national training need in data literacy and data science, Hulshof said, skills that are in high demand across STEM careers. The research will also support professional development for VCU students from underrepresented groups, and will involve training that highlights diversity, creativity and the democratization of ecology through open science.

“As a Chicana faculty, much of my research is designed to increase diversity and representation across STEM by engaging underrepresented students at VCU,” Hulshof said.

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