Learn more about the recipients of Arboretum Research Fellowships.

2023 Research Fellows

Arboretum Leopold Fellowship Award (two years)

Mia Keady
Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
Advisors: Randy Jackson and Thea Whitman
Roots, litter, deep soil, and microbes – investigating the paradigm shift of soil organic matter persistence

Soil is the greatest terrestrial carbon stock, yet the formation and persistence of carbon in soil is being re-examined. Soil carbon is stored within soil organic matter (SOM) – the living, dead, and decomposing fraction of soil. SOM composition, formation, and stability was thought to be influenced by aboveground factors such as the chemical composition of leaf litter, but recent work has suggested the importance of belowground biological factors. Roots, deep soil, and microbes may be more important to SOM persistence than aboveground litter. I propose to study the influence of roots, litter, soil depth, and microbes on SOM persistence. I will assess these factors using three experimental approaches: (i) the detrital input and removal experiment (DIRT) plots located in Curtis prairie, Noe woods, and Wingra woods, (ii) a re-sampling of restored and remnant prairies conducted twenty years ago by Kucharik et al. (2006), and (iii) a laboratory incubation to evaluate soil microbial carbon use efficiency (CUE) from samples collected in the DIRT and prairie comparisons. CUE assesses the amount of carbon that microbes commit to increasing their biomass (population size) compared to how much carbon is respired as CO2. In the DIRT and prairie observations, I will collect soil samples to analyze total carbon and I will assess SOM stability by sieving samples into two SOM pools that vary in size and stability (particulate organic matter vs. mineral-associated organic matter). Soil samples will be collected between habitats, across treatments with and without root and litter presence, and across soil depth. Soil microbial communities will be characterized by CUE and molecular DNA sequencing. The proposed research will address gaps in our understanding of belowground factors contributing to SOM stability and has the potential to aid belowground management to increase carbon stocks in the face of climate change.

Mia began her PhD in Environment and Resources at UW–Madison in 2021. She received a master’s degree in biology from George Mason University in 2020 and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Nebraska Wesleyan University in 2014.

“I believe an interdisciplinary approach to our many environmental challenges is the only way to find solutions and bridge interests.”

Research Fellowship Awards (one year)

Sam Anderson
Department of Biology
Advisor: Kate McCulloh
A physiological perspective: Utilizing stress-tolerance traits of Wisconsin woody species to reassess historical analyses and inform future land management

Within the last century, Wisconsin plant communities have undergone significant changes in composition, biodiversity, and homogenization across the landscape. When considered in tandem with changing climatic conditions, autecological studies of species’ adaptive capacities are of significant interest within the Great Lakes region. With the basis of a species’ ability to tolerate stressors like shade and drought rooted in their physiology, an understanding of key trait variation between species can provide insight into various stress tolerance strategies. While functional trait ecologists have utilized simple leaf level and life history traits to understand community level functional diversity, such traits are limited in their ability to directly assess tolerance to stressors such as drought or shade. The primary goal of this proposal is to utilize gas-exchange and hydraulic traits to assess abiotic stress tolerance, providing novel insight into the stress-adaptation strategies of Wisconsin woody species. With the heterogeneity of stressors and environments in Wisconsin temperate communities, such a study would produce a broad physiological understanding of woody plant stress tolerance that would serve to support future ecological research and land management. In assembling a Wisconsin Woody Plant Trait Database (WWPTD), these data could be used presently to quantify the overlap of stress tolerance trait space between native and non-native species, provide physiological metrics to contextualize ‘adaptation scores’ that currently contribute to climate vulnerability assessments, and provide new perspective on historical studies of community composition by quantifying how community stress tolerance has changed over time.

Sam began a PhD in botany in 2021 at UW–Madison. He earned a master’s certificate in environmental education and sustainability education from the Antioch University Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in 2018, and a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry with a minor in environmental studies from Northland College in 2017.

“I strive to implement a career that is place-based, integrative, and collaborative with local and regional partners. My emphasis on education and experience in the nonprofit and private sectors has developed into a robust understanding of how to implement and cultivate community through ecology.”

Mark Fuka
Department of Integrative Biology
Advisor: John Orrock
Examining the efficacy of a natural taste deterrent on Quercus rubra acorns and saplings to reduce granivory and herbivory to promote oak recruitment in the presence and absence of invasive shrubs

Oak woodlands are of high ecological and economic value due to their ability to harbor high levels of native wildlife and plant diversity. However, oak forests are highly endangered due to a persistent lack of oak recruitment. Failure in oak tree establishment and recruitment poses major threats to forest health and productivity, and this recruitment failure can occur at multiple life stages of oak trees through several biotic and abiotic factors. Specifically, consumption of oak acorns and saplings by animals (e.g., small mammals and deer) can be a primary impediment to oak recruitment and oak ecosystem restoration. The deleterious effects of small mammals and deer might be particularly pronounced in areas where oak recruitment is especially essential, such as areas invaded by exotic shrubs (e.g., buckthorn and honeysuckle). Although untested, a potentially promising means of promoting oak recruitment might be the use of a natural, organic deterrent (capsaicin from chili powder extract) to deter consumption of acorns and saplings by rodents and deer. We propose a set of novel field experiments to test the efficacy of capsaicin as an effective taste deterrent to both small mammals and deer in areas with and without invasive shrubs present. We hypothesize that seed removal by small mammal granivores will be lowest when seeds are treated with capsaicin extract and that this reduction in seed removal will be amplified in the absence of invasive shrubs. Additionally, we hypothesize that herbivory by white-tailed deer will be lower on saplings treated with capsaicin, but this effect will be less pronounced in the presence of invasive shrubs. By evaluating a novel method to improve oak recruitment in invaded and uninvaded forests that challenge oak restoration across Wisconsin, this work will be pivotal in the advancement of practical restoration techniques and help to aid future management strategies to promote oak tree establishment and recruitment.

Mark started his PhD in integrative biology at UW–Madison in 2021. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from University of Illinois, Chicago, in 2018.

“Science, by its very nature, should be inclusive, and this means sharing data by making it publicly accessible. My goal with this proposed work is to not only present its findings at both scientific conferences and public forums but release its data so that the scientific community can benefit from it years into the future.”

Michelle Homann
Department of Integrative Biology
Advisor: Ellen Damschen
The role of climate and priority effects in tallgrass prairie community assembly

Grasses are an inexpensive and resilient addition to native seed mixes used for tallgrass prairie restoration. As such, they are often seeded at high densities as an early step in the restoration process. This practice of overseeding can lead to restorations that are predominately composed of grasses, impacting community assembly and diversity over the long term. Additionally, a changing climate is likely to impact native prairie grasses and forbs differently, creating pressures that alter plant-plant interactions during assembly. This research will examine the effects of planting order in combination with projected climate change manipulations on tallgrass prairie plant communities and will take place through a controlled greenhouse experiment at University of Wisconsin Walnut Street Greenhouse. The results will be highly relevant to understanding how management decisions and a changing climate interact to drive community composition and diversity during the early stages of restoration and will increase the predictability of restoration outcomes to inform changes in land management techniques.

Michelle began her PhD in integrative biology at UW–Madison in 2021. She received a bachelor’s degree in environmental biology from UW–La Crosse in 2019.

“Developing and communicating results that are useful for fellow scientists, while also accessible to landowners and land managers, is a skill often lacking in academia—a gap that I hope to bridge while earning my PhD and throughout my career in restoration ecology.”

Aishwarya Veerabahu
Department of Botany
Advisors: Anne Pringle and Michelle Jusino
A golden opportunity to study the impacts of an invasive wood decay fungus

The golden oyster mushroom (GOM; Pleurotus citrinopileatus) is an invasive, edible wood decay fungus that is native to northeastern Asia and Japan and has been introduced throughout the Midwestern and Northeastern United States. The introduction of GOM originated from commercial strains sold for home cultivation. GOM fruits prolifically from April to November and is highly concentrated in forested areas of southern Wisconsin. Wood decay fungi perform the important ecosystem function of breaking down dead wood in a pattern that depends on the community composition of decay fungi. Very little is known about the impacts of invasive wood decay fungi, as they are understudied. Using 12 total sites, with 6 in the UW–Madison Arboretum managed lands, this study aims to elucidate the ecological effects of GOM on native fungal communities and their decay regimes, using a combination of field and molecular techniques. I will characterize fungal community composition in trees with and without GOM using high throughput amplicon sequencing. In order to quantify GOM abundance in trees, I will develop a GOM-specific qPCR probe. GOM is highly noticeable and delectable and its increasing occurrence has been recognized by the public. In response, I will conduct public outreach about the value of citizen science in tracking invasive species spread and responsible fungal cultivation practices to prevent introductions.

Aishwarya began a PhD in botany in 2022 at UW–Madison. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California, Riverside, in 2018.

“In my career, I aim to study fungal ecology research that is relevant to climate change and protecting biodiversity, and to communicate my science with the public.”

Past Fellows


Arboretum Leopold Fellowship (two years)

Mia Keady, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (advisors: Randy Jackson and Thea Whitman)
Roots, litter, deep soil, and microbes – investigating the paradigm shift of soil organic matter persistence

Research Fellowships (one year)

Benjamin Douglas, Department of Psychology (advisor: Markus Brauer)
Behavioral Tests of Social Norms Messaging in Environmental Education

Adrianna Gorsky, Department of Integrative Biology, Center for Limnology (advisors: Emily Stanley and Hilary Dugan)
Overlooked and understudied: Urban and eutrophic ponds as greenhouse gas hotspots

Michelle Homann, Department of Integrative Biology (advisor: Ellen Damschen)
The role of climate and priority effects in tallgrass prairie community assembly


Research Fellowships (one year)

Roberto Carrera-Martínez, Department of Integrative Biology (advisor: Sean Schoville)
Exploring the distribution of invasive earthworms and exotic plants and indirect interactions: Indications of invasional meltdown or disturbance-mediated establishment?

Mary-Claire Glasenhardt, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (advisor: Paul Zedler)
Community dynamics of an 86-year-old tallgrass prairie restoration: Curtis Prairie’s current conditions, temporal change, and land management

Dana Johnson, Department of Soil Science (advisor: Thea Whitman)
Impact of non-native Amynthas spp. on soil structure, fungal biomass, and fungal diversity in forest soils


Arboretum Leopold Fellowship (two years)

Katherine Charton, Department of Integrative Biology (advisor: Ellen Damschen)
Effects of management and precipitation on woody encroachment in tallgrass prairie

Research Fellowships (one year)

Erin Crone, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology (advisor: Daniel Preston)
Ecology of urban herpetofauna in Madison, Wisconsin

Anna Skye Harnsberger, Department of Entomology (advisors: Karen Oberhauser and Claudio Gratton)
Effects of local and landscape characteristics on native prairie butterfly communities

Nick Hoffman, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (advisor: Sara Hotchkiss)
Stormwater history: A fifty-year reconstruction of the runoff-mediated disturbance load to Curtis Pond and Curtis Prairie

Carson Keller, Department of Zoology (advisor: John Orrock)
Do invasive species modify small mammal trophic interactions and generate predictable behavioral changes?


Research Fellowships (one year)

Jared Beck, Department of Botany (advisor: Don Waller)
Contagious trees? Characterizing spatial patterns and ecological factors influencing the local distribution of trees in southern Wisconsin

Erin Crone, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology (advisor: Daniel Preston)
Interactions between non-native earthworms and native amphibians in the UW–Madison Arboretum

Rachel Jordan, Department of Botany (advisor: Kate McCulloh)
How will Wisconsin’s native conifers respond to winter warming?

Theresa Vander Woude, Department of Life Sciences Communication and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (advisor: Bret Shaw)
Opinion leaders: Activating the Arboretum’s “Neighborshed”

Science Communications Fellowship (one year)

Liz Anna Kozik, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (advisor: Caroline Gottschalk-Druschke)
Public Engagement Focused on Restoration Ecology