OWU’s Laurel Anderson to Lead Ecological Research/Education Project

National Science Foundation awards $494,980 grant to Ohio Wesleyan, 11 other institutions

Amy Downing, Ph.D., professor of zoology (left); Laurel Anderson, Ph.D., associate professor of botany-microbiology; and David Johnson, Ph.D., professor of botany-microbiology, will collaborate on a National Science Foundation-funded research and education project. Anderson will lead the project, which will involve 11 other institutions.

Ohio Wesleyan University students and faculty soon will be able to engage in large-scale collaborative ecological research coordinated by OWU associate professor of botany-microbiology Laurel Anderson, Ph.D., and involving faculty from 11 additional institutions.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Anderson and the collaborating schools a five-year $494,980 grant to fund the Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN). This network will develop collaborative research projects that focus on regional to continental-scale ecological issues, engage students in authentic science while teaching them basic ecology, create a continental-scale ecology course module using research data that will be team-taught by scientist-educators from the participating institutions, and establish an online database of collaborative data sets collected during the project.

As network coordinator, Anderson will chair the leadership working group.

Other institutions currently involved are Carthage College in Wisconsin, Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee, Meredith College in North Carolina, Swarthmore College and Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Ferrum College in Virginia, Mount S. Mary’s University in Maryland, Union College and Bard College in New York, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and St. Olaf College in Minnesota. The schools are referred to in the grant as primarily undergraduate institutions, or PUIs. The network will be expanded over time to include additional institutional partners.

“Time and money for research can be limited at smaller institutions,” Anderson says. “But if we design projects that involve students in data collection, and coordinate our efforts to contribute data to common research goals, PUIs can be important players in answering some of the most important ecological questions of the day, while teaching our students through immersion in authentic science.

“The national Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), currently being developed, has a similar philosophy to EREN of providing ways for scientists to investigate ecological questions using a coordinated network of study sites distributed across the United States,” Anderson notes.

“The EREN will encourage scientists from PUIs to be involved in NEON, and will also support NEON by collecting data that could be combined with NEON experiments. EREN will have an additional focus of engaging in research projects that are feasible for small institutions and can involve students in meaningful ways.”

Anderson wants to thank her grant co-authors, which include Tracy Gartner, Ph.D., of Carthage College; Karen Kuers, Ph.D., of Sewanee; Erin Lindquist, Ph.D., of Meredith College; Jose-Luis Machado, Ph.D., of Swarthmore College; Bob Pohlad, Ph.D., and Carolyn Thomas, Ph.D., both of Ferrum College; and Jeffrey Simmons, Ph.D., of Mount St. Mary’s University.

Ohio Wesleyan’s nearby Kraus and Bohannan nature preserves will be utilized during the research, Anderson says.

OWU Botany Professor David Johnson and his students conduct research during a fall visit to OWU’s Bohannan Nature Preserve.

“We will definitely be looking for ways to incorporate our two temperate forest nature preserves into the EREN research projects as they develop,” she says. “One possibility already in the pilot phase is establishing permanent plots to monitor tree growth over time in response to environmental change. We can then compare what is happening to trees in the OWU nature preserves with other sites across the country.”

Work on the project actually started in March 2009, when Anderson received a NSF workshop grant to fund meetings to bring scientists from PUIs to brainstorm. The new, five-year NSF grant will provide full funding for the project. The EREN planners will meet in June at Sewanee to develop the tree-growth experiment and to establish administrative aspects of the network.

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