Biology Alumna Talks Climate Change & Plant Communities

On April 15, 2014 by Grad Forum

wolkovich_possible_thumbnail1Elizabeth (Lizzie) Wolkovich visited on April 4 and presented her current research on how plants are reacting to climate warming. She is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. She received her PhD in 2009 from Dartmouth, where she worked with professors Douglas Bolger (Environmental Studies Program) and Kathryn Cottingham (Department of Biological Sciences). Her research at Dartmouth was on community and ecosystem dynamics of invasion biology, focusing on a coastal sage scrub. She is a noted biologist and teacher in her field, and received multiple awards and fellowships while at Dartmouth, including the Gilman Fellowship (2007), the Jenks Prize (2008), and the Graduate Student Filene Teaching Award (2009).

Wolkovich’s work explores the impact of climate change on plant communities—both the direct and indirect effects. She studies warming experiments that monitor the effects on different plant species and has compared experimental results to observations that have been collected for years all over the world. Researchers have found that there is a 5-6 day advance in plant flowering and leafing per every 1°C increase in temperature. The plant species that tend to flower and leaf earlier in the spring season exhibit the greatest sensitivity to warming temperatures. Not only does spring warming play an intricate role in these shifts, but winter chilling also has an effect. Certain plant species are believed to only flower or leaf when they have received the proper amount of winter chilling, followed by the right amount of spring warming. If the winter is too warm, and the plants do not receive the right amount of chilling, they may not flower or leaf in the springtime.

As for the indirect effects of climate change, Wolkovich looks at invasive plant species. If there is a space available in a certain plant niche, then an invasive species can enter the niche and take over. Since these invasive species enter the temporal growing seasons when the native species are not growing, the exotic species tends to adapt better to the surroundings and thus benefit from a longer growing time. Studying plant lifecycles and how these are affected by climate and habitat can help predict these plant invasions.

Wolkovich ended her presentation by projecting forward and looking at the consequences of humans modifying plant space. Climate change (specifically climate warming) is changing how plant species are experiencing time. Different species do well at different times of the year, and if their time measurement is off, it will have a domino effect on how other plant species react. Current models look at stationary environments (there are ups and downs, but the mean is zero), but we are now in a time of non-stationary environmental conditions (there are ups and downs, but the mean is increasing linearly) and models need to be developed to account for this change.

When asked why she decided to pursue an academic teaching career, and if she had any advice for current graduate students who are planning to follow a similar path, Wolkovich explained that you have to enjoy what you do. Wolkovich noted that while academic jobs are becoming more difficult to obtain, if you just keep doing what you love and do not worry too much about following a specific, set career path, everything often works out. She thinks this is especially true for those who develop their own personal definition of success and are clear about their main priorities and goals.

by Molly Croteau

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