The College of Natural Sciences has recently recruited and supported top leaders among a new generation of scientists through the Stengl-Wyer Endowment – the largest endowment in the college’s history. These postdoctoral scholars and graduate students are working on research projects that will promote a deeper understanding of climate change, protect natural habitats and maintain biodiversity in Texas and beyond.
The college announced Casey Stengl and Loraine Wyer’s transformational $45 million gift just a year ago, on what would have been the 101st birthday of Dr. Stengl. In the year since, following a competitive process involving applicants from around the world, the college welcomed postdoctoral scholars from top institutions including the University of Oxford, Columbia University and Baylor University.
In the year since the major gift was announced, support from the endowment has provided for research-driven enhancements to field stations and biodiversity collections, undergraduate research support, research grants to faculty spanning four departments, postdoctoral scholar recruitment and graduate student fellowships. Among the most important new projects are critical investments in the scientific leaders of tomorrow and their research.
“Casey Stengl’s visionary support already has catalyzed major advances in Texas biological research,” said David Hillis, professor of integrative biology and director of UT’s Biodiversity Center. “Decades from now, her contributions will be as celebrated as they are today.”
Meet the seven emerging leaders in our Stengl-Wyer Endowment initiatives.
The Scholars program annually selects three winners for this prestigious award, which comes with access to UT Austin’s biological field stations, collections and facilities. Scholars work with a mentor faculty member and meet regularly with other members of the program to network and collaborate, as they also pursue important independent research.
Imagining Self-Fertilizing Plants with Thomas Bytnerowicz
Thomas Bytnerowicz, who received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, studies the way ecosystems cycle carbon and nitrogen. His work seeks to understand what controls biological nitrogen fixation, the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to biologically usable forms, to predict how these critical cycles vary across time and geographic areas.
“Understanding nitrogen fixation can tell us about the capacity of forests to absorb carbon dioxide and how that may change with and impact climate change,” Bytnerowicz said. “Additionally, establishing what conditions are beneficial for nitrogen fixation has big agricultural implications. Many crops fix nitrogen, and it may be possible to engineer nitrogen fixation into corn and wheat. This would essentially make them self-fertilizing.”
Bytnerowicz’s experimental work at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory will be paired with mathematical modeling of forest dynamics to study how nitrogen-fixing plants, like the mesquite tree in Texas, live in and affect subtropical and tropical environments. His work has implications for understanding the relationship between forests and climate change.
Bringing Native Mussels to the Forefront with Chase Smith
Chase Smith studies the evolution of freshwater mussels in the order Unionida, an aquatic group of bivalves with approximately 300 species native to the United States. Freshwater mussels have one of the most peculiar life cycles within the animal kingdom. In the larval stage, they are parasitic, growing in the gills of certain fish, before dropping off to grow into adults. To attract their hosts, mussels have evolved numerous “fishing” techniques to trick their hosts into carrying their parasitic larvae. For example, mussels in the genus Lampsilis have adapted their tissue to mirror a darter, both in sight and movement, to attract their host fish – largemouth bass. As an avid fisherman himself, Smith is enamored by this life cycle, especially considering mussels are blind and have no conception of how prey items of their host look or behave. Additionally, bivalves, including freshwater mussels, are some of the only animals that can inherit mitochondrial DNA from their male parents (most animals only inherit mitochondrial DNA from their female parents). Smith plans to study both of these phenomena, and how they have evolved across freshwater mussels in North America. Unlike their invasive counterparts such as the zebra mussel, unionids are among the most imperiled groups of animals in North America. There remains a critical need in the conservation community to understand why some species are more vulnerable than others and how to develop effective recovery strategies for many imperiled mussel species. While at UT, Smith plans to work with Texas A&M Natural Resource Institute, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a database of genetic information for freshwater mussels, particularly those found in Texas, to promote conservation and facilitate future research in the group.
“UT has given me an amazing opportunity to work with some highly talented scientists across multiple scientific disciplines. My primary goal is to continue to advance the understanding of the biology, ecology, and evolution of freshwater mussels, which may ultimately lead to more successful conservation and recovery of these highly imperiled organisms,” said Smith, who received his Ph.D. from Baylor.
Encountering the Roles of Evolutionary Conflict with Shana Caro:
Shana Caro, who received her Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, spent much of her academic career studying apes like chimpanzees, but she has turned her attention to the European starling, a common sight in Austin parking lots. She studies the way these birds parent and communicate with their offspring. What she hopes to understand is how evolutionary conflicts, like how much food is available, shape those relationships.
“Ultimately, I think the more you know about how evolution works, the better you can predict how evolution will work in the future,” Caro observed.
Her field research will peek under the hood of these birds’ evolution-induced behavior by studying certain traits’ neurological and physical underpinnings. European starlings are invasive in North America and can push out native birds and have negative impacts on agriculture and urban environments, and her research could have implications for other species.
“You never know where the science is going to lead,” she said.
Year-long fellowships for doctoral candidates support dissertation research in the area of diversity of life and organisms in their natural environments.
Assessing Barriers to Fish Flourishing with Angelina Dichiera
Environmental conditions like higher temperature and low oxygen levels in water seems to affect the function of a critical enzyme in fish, which Angelina Dichiera, a Ph.D. candidate in marine science, discovered is linked to oxygen delivery in the red blood cell. She studies this specific enzyme, called carbonic anhydrase (which is also found in humans),in collaboration with other scientists to better understand fish respiration.
“Working together, we’re able to piece together more of a big picture idea of how these fish are able to withstand things like climate change,” Dichiera said.
Her work could provide critical insights into the inner workings of some species of fish, such as red drum, which is a popular sport fish on the Texas Gulf Coast and an important driver of the economy.
Combatting a Cactus-Killing Pest with Colin Morrison
Colin Morrison, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology, evolution and behavior, researches the relationship between certain plants and the insects that depend on them for survival. For example, he has focused on passion vines and the specialized caterpillars and beetles that prey on these plants, as well as other insects ad plants that evolved alongside one another. Today, as the introduction of non-native invasive species threaten local plants, his research is more important than ever as it provides insights into maintaining biodiversity, agricultural crops and ecosystems in Texas, Central America and South America.
As lead investigator, Colin now is studying the prickly pear cactus and an invasive cactus moth that threatens it.
“This moth could potentially cause the extinction of prickly pear cactus all over North America, which could dramatically alter landscapes,” Morrison said. “That cactus is a critical food source for all kinds of wildlife. Additionally, it’s an agricultural staple in some regions. So, understanding these relationships between insects and plants is important, especially as we deal with a changing climate.”
Comparing Gut Bacteria for Health Insights with Alex Nishida
Cell and molecular biology Ph.D. candidate Alex Nishida studies the relationship between the bacteria that live inside humans and those that live inside our closest cousins, the great apes. Her latest research has focused on how the bacterial microbiome in apes shifts between those that live in the wild and those that live in captivity.
Bacterial microbiomes, particularly those found in the guts of animals and humans, factor into overall health. What Nishida found is that apes in captivity have very similar bacteria to one another and their bacterial makeup is very different from those found in apes in the wild.
“In a lot of ways, apes in captivity are similar to humans living in industrialized societies. Their diets are not as varied as they are in the wild. They live in an environment that is different from the one they evolved in. They are likely to be exposed to antibiotics,” Nashida said. “We get our microbiome from environment and development. There is a lot to be learned in these comparisons.”
Evolving for Temperature Extremes with Julia York
Julia York, also a Ph.D. student in ecology, evolution and behavior, studies how animals sense temperature, the neurological processes behind those senses and how temperature affects specific species.
She researches notothenioid fish, a type of fish that live in Antarctic waters that hover near freezing year-round, as well as Texas leaf cutter ants, the northernmost leafcutter ant in the world. York studies the same family of genes in the leafcutter ant and the cold-loving fish, investigating how these genes underlie the ways these creatures sense temperature.
“Understanding extreme systems and how organisms survive there is going to be critical, especially as our climate continues to change,” York said. “And on a smaller level understanding how something like the leafcutter ant, which causes a lot of agricultural damage, senses temperature could lead to better solutions to combatting them [than] pesticides.”