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Biodiversity Blog


Meet Stengl-Wyer Scholar: Chatura Vaidya


Chatura Vaidya is one of our 2022 Stengl-Wyer Scholars who is working with Dr. Shalene Jha and Dr. Amelia Wolf. As part of the Stengl-Wyer Endowment, the Stengl-Wyer Postdoctoral Scholars Program provides up to three years of independent support for talented postdoctoral researchers in the broad area of the diversity of life and/or organisms in their natural environments.

Chatura spoke with us about her research beginnings and the crucial research she is working on during her time as a Scholar.

Tell us where you came from before UT, and what you studied then?

I did both my Masters and PhD in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I am broadly interested in the ecological impacts of global environmental change on plant-insect interactions, with a particular focus on plant-pollinator interactions. For both my Masters and PhD, I studied the effect of human-induced land use, characterized by urbanization and agricultural intensification, on plants and pollinators and the ecosystem services they provide.

You study the impact of environmental and eco-evolutionary change on plant-pollinator relationships. Can you explain to us how this works?

I am interested in understanding how human activity, whether through land management or due to climate change, has impacted organisms. For most of my work, I have used pollinators, mainly bees, as model systems. During my Masters, I investigated the effects of urbanization on the growth, survival and reproductive success of bumblebees in Michigan, and found that effects of urbanization on experimental bumblebee colonies’ growth can be mitigated when cities have high flowering resources (such as those found in community gardens). Additionally, along with my collaborators, we found that urbanization can have dramatic effects on changing the sex ratios of ground-nesting bees, and that it tends to favor more non-native bees. During my dissertation, I examined the role of agricultural management in conserving biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services in coffee agroecosystems in southern Mexico. Specifically, I found that intensive coffee agriculture (low plant diversity and pesticide use) significantly reduced the growth and survival of native stingless bee species in Mexico, compared to an organic coffee plantation with high plant diversity, and that this organic plantation was virtually similar to a remnant forest fragment in supporting native bees, highlighting the role of sustainable agriculture in supporting biodiversity. I also studied how local scale farm management in a low intensive organic coffee plantation influences the interactions between species that provide two key ecosystem services - pest control and pollination and that the availability of these vital ecosystem services is a result of complex biological interactions. 

web organic coffee plantation in Mexico FInca Irlanda
 "Finca Irlanda," an organic coffee plantation in Mexico.

My postdoc will substantially extend this work by investigating how multiple global environmental change factors — N deposition and drought — interactively affect plant traits (floral traits), and how this in turn influences pollinator health and plant reproduction. The proposed work focuses on a common native plant species, Monarda citriodora, found in southern US grasslands, which is also frequently visited by a wide-range of pollinators and thus represents an important proof-of-concept study whose methods can be readily adapted to other species and environmental contexts. This research will hopefully advance our understanding of whether highly visited plant species act as "disease hubs" under changing drought and nutrient conditions, and thus how pathogen transmission may shift given local and global changes in climate and soil quality.

What got you excited to study this area?

I have been interested in agroecology since before my Masters at the University of Michigan. Agroecology is the study of the ecology of species interactions in agricultural ecosystems, but it is not just a science, it is also a socio-political movement. I got the opportunity to work and learn from two of the most renowned scientists who study agroecology at Umich. The importance of agriculture in human lives does not need to be stated but the role of agriculture in conserving biodiversity is often overlooked. Before I started my Masters I wasn’t planning to use bees as model systems, but I happily stumbled upon them and understood that they would indeed be ideal model systems, not only in agroecology (because of their pollination services), but also because bees are very species rich and therefore of conservation concern. This is how I eventually expanded my research program to include not just the role agroecosystems but also urban ecosystems in conserving bee species and ecosystem services. This has now led to an interest in studying the effects of the interactions between multiple environmental change factors - climate change, nitrogen deposition and disease, on plant-pollinator interactions and plant fitness.

stingless bee on cardamom flower
 Stingless bee on cardamom flower.

Does Texas present a unique situation, challenge or benefit for your research?

Texas definitely presents both a unique situation and a benefit to my research. Texas, and also the south-central US in general, is a major pollinator biodiversity hotspot and is also a region that is vulnerable to climate, especially drought. For my research, I am using a Texas native plant species, Monarda citriodora, an iconic plant that is widely recommended in habitat restoration. I will be studying whether this drought-tolerant plant can mitigate the effects of drought and disease transmission in bees under varying nutrient conditions, and still be a preferred native wildflower species for pollinators and habitat restoration.

How do the field stations assist with your work?

Field stations, in particular, Brackenridge Field Lab and the Wildflower Center are central to my research questions. I am using long-term experimental plots started by Dr. Amy Wolf at both BFL and the Wildflower Center to compare controlled greenhouse experiments with realistic field settings.

How will being a Stengl-Wyer Scholar help advance your work?

Being a Stengl-Wyer Scholar gives me a lot of freedom and resources to ask the questions I am interested in. Access to field stations and greenhouses will help advance my research goals. It also gives me a chance to provide research opportunities to undergraduate students, especially those from underserved communities, who I plan to recruit and mentor through the course of the research project. I am also lucky to have the mentorship of two strong women scientists, Drs Shalene Jha and Amelia Wolf, with whom I hope to collaborate for many years to come.

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