August 23, 2021

NSF support for student research experiences in Ecuador

Under the direction of Associate Professor of Biology Margaret Metz, the National Science Foundation has awarded Lewis & Clark College an International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) grant. This $300K project, “Tropical Research Experience in Ecological Science (TREES): Regeneration dynamics in a hyper-diverse tropical forest” is a collaboration between Dr. Metz and her longtime colleagues Dr. Simon Queenborough, Senior Lecturer and Research Scientist at the School of the Environment at Yale University, and Dr. Renato Valencia at the School of Biological Science, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE). The overarching goal of this project is to build capacity and research experiences in field and lab techniques among US graduate and undergraduate students while contributing to our understanding about the science of climate change.

Dr. Metz has conducted research in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, a site with exceptionally high biodiversity, for many years. The proposed research program will allow Lewis & Clark and Yale students to engage in research that directly contributes to the understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that structure ecosystems and communities. More specifically, the research combines experimental manipulations of water availability and natural enemies in the field and greenhouse with additional field experiments taking advantage of natural variation in water availability and pest pressure. By investigating the interaction between climate and natural enemies on the performance of trees in a hyper-diverse, aseasonal tropical rainforest, this project will address a key knowledge gap in forest ecology and climate change science: how do aseasonal ever-wet tropical forests respond to drought and natural enemies?

Beginning in 2021-22, this IRES site project will involve six undergraduate and masters-level graduate students each year, for 18 total over the three-year project. Drs. Metz and Queenborough will mentor students during the spring semesters before they depart for nine summer weeks in Ecuador. Once in country, with the help of Lewis & Clark’s long-term partner Amauta Spanish School in Cuenca, students will spend the first 10 days learning about Ecuador’s culture and history and taking language classes. After this orientation, students will travel to the Yasuní Scientific Station, a remote site in Yasuni National Park, to develop and conduct independent research for seven weeks—including collecting and analyzing data, writing up results, reviewing one another’s work, and presenting a talk. Mentored by Dr. Valencia, participants will work in teams made up of Yale University master’s or undergraduate students, Lewis & Clark undergraduates, Ecuadorian students, and local guides or naturalists. Before returning to the US, students will visit host university PUCE and several more research sites near Quito. After returning to the U.S., students will engage in various professional development activities during the fall semesters.

It is worth noting that this IRES award is Dr. Metz’s fourth competitive NSF grant since 2014, all of which have engaged Lewis & Clark students in field research and data analysis. This includes “Cyclic vs. anthropogenic causes of long-term variation in the regeneration of tropical forests with contrasting latitude and diversity”, “Dynamical Interactions between plant and oomycete biodiversity in a temperate forest”, and “Long-term studies of flowering, fruiting & seedling recruitment in Neotropical forests: Global change, climate variability & mechanisms of species coexistence”. More information about Dr. Metz’s research in environmental biology is available here.

August 2021