MSUToday
Published: April 30, 2019

NatSci graduate students win prestigious fellowship

Contact(s): Val Osowski College of Natural Science office: (517) 432-4561 osowskiv@msu.edu

Three Michigan State University College of Natural Science graduate students were among 11 who were recently awarded Kellogg Biological Station Long-Term Ecological Research, or KBS-LTER, program fellowships. 

Isabela Borges, Lindsey Kemmerling and Corinn Rutkoski — all from NatSci’s Department of Integrative Biology, or IBIO,— will participate in the program.

Established by the National Science Foundation in 1980, the National Network of LTER sites provides funding and support for long-term, ecological studies across 28 sites in the United States. The KBS site, established in 1988, currently engages in research on ecology and environment across a gradient of land-use intensity from conventional field crops to grasslands.

Each student will be awarded funds for one semester totaling $6,500 to be used for stipend, tuition, health insurance and research-related expenses.

Lindsey Kemmerling, a second-year Ph.D. student advised by IBIO professor Nick Haddad, was bolstered by news of the fellowship.

“Receiving support from scientists I admire is validating as a young scientist, and I am grateful that the LTER finds my research important and exciting,” said Kemmerling, whose fellowship will begin in fall 2019. “Working as a part of the LTER allows me to explore more impactful questions than I have the capacity to do on my own.”

The funds will make it possible for Kemmerling to extend her research on the role of biodiversity in farming systems to the end of the flowering season, an important and exciting time for ecological change she does not want to miss. 

“In order to prevent the loss of biodiversity, adapt to climate change and sustainably support a growing population, biodiversity must be incorporated into working landscapes such as farms,” Kemmerling said. “The addition of prairie strips at KBS-LTER provides an excellent experimental setup for me to test how increasing biodiversity compares to other methods of farming.”

Isabela Borges, a first-year Ph.D. student advised by biologist Sarah Fitzpatrick, has been looking forward to working at KBS since the start of her program. Her fellowship begins in the spring of 2020.

“I am energized to get this fellowship,” Borges said. “Knowing that I’ll be supported through the LTER network and surrounded by amazing scientists at this long-term research facility makes everything more exciting.”

Borges’ research will focus on how the legume Chamaecrista fasciculata’sgenetic diversity alters its interaction with symbiotic, nitrogen-fixing bacteria. By using LTER soils with different legacies of fertilization, Borges will gain insight into how human-based changes to the environment alter the evolution of natural populations, a study only possible at sites with long histories of research, such as KBS-LTER.

“Understanding how global climate change impacts natural populations will be biologists’ most pressing challenge in coming years,” Borges said. “This fellowship will cover the equipment needed for my experiments and lighten my teaching assistant load to allow me to focus more time on my research.”

Corinn Rutkoski, a first-year Ph.D. student in biologist Sarah Evans’ laboratory, is investigating soil microbial dynamics associated with prairie strips, a conservation agriculture practice that involves planting strips of prairie grasses and wildflowers within farm fields.

“Prairie strips may facilitate the spread of beneficial bacteria and fungi out into surrounding crop fields,” said Rutkoski, whose fellowship will cover the fall 2019 semester. “To understand these dynamics, I will collect soil at increasing distances from a prairie strip and assess the composition and activity of soil microbes and various metrics of soil health.”

The fellowship will fund a large portion of sample analysis needed for Rutkoski’s project, including the cost of DNA sequencing to evaluate soil bacterial and fungal community composition.

“Receiving this fellowship means that I can collect valuable baseline measurements from a new treatment in the KBS-LTER site,” Rutkoski said. “The fellowship also provides me a unique opportunity to begin research and sample analysis early in my graduate career.”  

Two of the KBS-LTER fellows, Kemmerling and Rutkoski, are also using part of their fellowship funds to team up this summer. Kemmerling will investigate decomposition by dung beetles, while Rutkoski looks at microbial-related decomposition. By pairing their research, the graduate students will have an even wider snapshot of soil health and biodiversity across differing agricultural management practices and soil trophic levels.

To find out more about KBS-LTER funding opportunities and previous fellowship award winners, please visit their website.