EEB graduate student Nia Johnson and her adviser, Professor Gina Baucom, have been selected as a 2019 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellows for Advanced Study. The goal of the Gilliam Fellowships is to increase the diversity among scientists who are prepared to assume leadership roles in science, particularly as college and university faculty. The program provides awards to pairs of students and their dissertation advisers who are selected for their scientific leadership and commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

“I am broadly interested in understanding the mechanisms that allow plants to live in some of the most extreme environments, and how these evolved mechanisms impact plant-herbivore interactions,” said Johnson. “Plant-herbivore interactions are responsible for the initial movement of energy and nutrients as well as the success of most organisms in many food webs. For this reason, it is crucial to study the evolution and ecology of how these interactions take place.  

“Under the principle of energy allocation, due to a finite amount of resources, organisms must preferentially allocate energy to a given function at the expense of another. Because of this constraint, examining the basis of allocation tradeoffs is fundamental for understanding the evolution of many behavioral and physiological processes.”

Johnson’s dissertation research investigates how evolved mechanisms, which aid in reducing herbicide susceptibility, may impact a plant’s ability to defend itself against herbivores. In order to do this, she took samples from multiple populations of the common agricultural weed, Velvetleaf (Abultion theophrasti) from agricultural fields located across Michigan. Velvetleaf is one of the most detrimental weeds in corn and soybean field in North America, costing farmers nearly $400 million in management yearly.

EEB Professor Gina Baucom

This past year, Johnson was able to establish a pattern of variation in the amount of herbicide susceptibility between populations in a growth chamber assay. She is currently working on a common garden experiment, located at the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens, investigating the influences of reduced herbicide susceptibility on the natural herbivore community. While most of the world’s agricultural systems depend heavily on the use of herbicides, very few studies have looked at evolution in response to herbicides and its impacts on plant-herbivore interactions. Johnson’s research will provide novel insights on the interplay between herbicide susceptibility and herbivory resistance in the field.

Johnson developed an entirely new thread of potentially high-impact research on her own system, according to Baucom. “I find myself incredibly impressed with the questions and experimental system she has developed,” Baucom said.

“Not only has she already identified a question of high intellectual merit, she is also going to be a strong, committed voice in the promotion of minority representation in ecology and evolution. I am incredibly impressed by her intelligence, professionalism, and determination – all of which are components associated with leadership within the scientific community.”

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