Laura Aldrich-Wolfe, NDSU assistant professor of biological sciences, was recently awarded a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (NSF CAREER) award. Considered the agency’s most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty, the $1,162,262 award will provide multiple cross-cultural research opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students working in international settings to advance the understanding of the role of fungal diversity in ecosystem function, particularly the effects of diversity on decomposition rates and plant disease incidence and severity, and to create educational materials that will improve specific learning outcomes in undergraduate biology courses.
Aldrich-Wolfe considers herself a conservation biologist. “Humans depend on biodiversity, the diversity of life on Earth, for our sustenance and survival, yet our current management of Earth’s natural resources has generated rapid losses of biodiversity across many different types of living organisms,”Aldrich-Wolfe said. “Because agriculture is the largest contributor to this loss, a clear understanding of the relative importance of different agricultural practices to biodiversity loss is urgently needed.”
This award will continue her research into the importance of biodiversity for key functions of fungi in a coffee agroecosystem. Coffee, Aldrich-Wolfe indicated, is a crop of critical importance to the global economy and to coffee producers, processors, purveyors, and consumers in the United States. Insights into the interplay of agricultural practices and fungi in coffee will offer lessons applicable to agriculture elsewhere, including here in North Dakota. Aldrich-Wolfe is particularly interested in the role fungal diversity plays in reducing crop diseases and in improving crop nutrient cycling.
Currently little is known about the effects of agricultural practices on fungal biodiversity and how they may alter the critical functions that fungi naturally play, including acting as decomposers that return nutrients to crops; as beneficial endophytes that protect plants from pests and pathogens; and as mycoparasites that reduce potential harm to crops by feeding on other fungi.
Aldrich-Wolfe first formed an appreciation for the tropics when she participated in an undergraduate study abroad program in Monteverde, Costa Rica, which inspired her to work on challenges of reforestation in Costa Rica for her Ph.D. at Cornell University. These experiences forged a lasting connection.
“While fungi are found everywhere on the planet, the diversity of species found near the equator is staggering,” she said. “I also appreciate that Costa Rica is a stable democracy that invests in their people and that really values scientific research. Over the past 20 years I have formed close personal and professional bonds with many people who live there and I consider them part of my family.”
Aldrich-Wolfe brings students to the area to provide the same rich learning environment to them. Typically two to four students work in her lab each year. Aldrich-Wolfe believes that it’s important to provide authentic research opportunities, especially to those students who may not see themselves as researchers. She enjoys helping first generation college and graduate students discover success in the lab.
“Working with Costa Rican students and farmers provides NDSU students an opportunity to learn science while developing their understanding about other cultures,” she said. “This NSF CAREER Award will provide high impact, cross-cultural research opportunities for training both undergraduate and graduate students and it represents a terrific opportunity to train students alongside my collaborator Priscila Chaverri Echandi, research professor at the Universidad de Costa Rica.”
NSF awards CAREER grants to scholars who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education. Overall, CAREER awardees at NDSU have received more than $13 million in grants to conduct research in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, civil and electrical engineering, computer science, pharmaceutical sciences, plant sciences, coatings and polymeric materials, and veterinary and microbiological sciences.
Aldrich-Wolfe’s research, entitled “Coffee fungi below and aboveground: agroecological experiments for teaching and learning about fungal diversity and ecosystem function,” is funded by Award No. 2048131 from the National Science Foundation.