“The information we gather will help forest ecologists better understand the role of soil pathogens and light requirements for natural seedling regeneration and how natural systems work.” — Sarah McCarthy Neumann
The National Science Foundation has awarded $500,000 to Alma College faculty biologist Sarah McCarthy Neumann for research that could provide new information for increasing tree survival and enhancing the effective conservation and management of forests.
The three-year research grant through the NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology and Population and Community Ecology Program will involve both faculty and undergraduate students in the study that examines how environmental conditions, soil-related bacteria and fungi, and light availability interact on the prevalence and severity of disease in young tree seedlings.
“This is basic research that addresses a question that ecologists have long investigated: How can so many competing species coexist in a forest?” says Neumann. “The information we gather will help forest ecologists better understand the role of soil pathogens and light requirements for natural seedling regeneration and how natural systems work.”
The study focuses on how plant-soil feedback affects the survival and growth of tree seedlings in varying levels of light. Plant-soil feedback, or PSF, is the scientific term that refers to the changes in soil that are caused by plants, which in turn influence the growth and health of plants. Microbial activity and tree composition are the major drivers of PSF effects.
For the study, Neumann and her students will transplant 7,000 seedlings from eight tree species in a series of fenced-in plots at the Alma College Ecological Field Station. The seedlings will be planted in sealed mesh fungal enclosure bags, which are designed to prevent roots and fungi from passing in or out of the soil but does not affect water or nutrient flows. They will plant the seedlings in eight different soil types in locations of varying light availability.
Undergraduate students will collect data during the duration of the experiment, documenting the progress and growth of the seedlings at monthly intervals. As part of their analysis, they will investigate how environmental conditions such as temperature, soil moisture and light combine with soil type and fungal community to affect seedling performance.
“This is a study that extensively involves undergraduate students,” says Neumann. “They will be engaged in all aspects of data collection, and they will gain experience in laboratory work in their analysis of the data.”
In addition to the scientific research, the seedling and environmental sensor data from the project will be stored in the Dow Digital Science Center at Alma College and made available for high school and undergraduate use in teaching and research projects, adds Neumann.
The NSF grant will provide funding for materials, supplies and stipends for faculty and the undergraduate students.
Neumann, who joined the Alma College faculty in fall 2014, says she has always had a passion for the outdoors, and that her undergraduate experience paved the path for her career.
“I have always loved forests, but as an undergraduate student I also fell in love with research,” she says. “It allows me to use my curiosity and creativity to try to figure out how the natural world works.”
Neumann, who has a Ph.D. in forestry and ecology, also is involved with the Tree Map Project, designed to identify all of the trees on Alma College’s campus. The project, funded by a grant from the Michigan Department of National Resources and USDA Forest Service, provides an online resource concerning the native and horticultural varieties of trees growing on Alma’s campus.