Mia Howard is a 2022 LSA Collegiate Fellow in the college’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Her research interests include plant defenses and the microbiome, with the goal of understanding how plants protect themselves and how they might be able to better tolerate stress from their environment.

LSA: How would you describe your field of study? What kind of research are you conducting?

Mia Howard: I’m an ecologist. A plant ecologist, specifically, so I study how plants interact with the environment and other organisms. I’m mainly interested in how plants interact with herbivores, which are the organisms that eat plants, and soil microorganisms, which can help plants acquire nutrients and cope with stress.

A lot of people think plants are boring because they don’t move in the way animals do, but I think it makes them especially interesting. Plants can’t run away from a creature trying to eat them but, instead, they have more interesting defense mechanisms to protect themselves. Some have physical defenses like big spines or thorns, and others are impressive chemists that can synthesize toxins to fend off attackers. Some can even change their stem architecture to hide from insects. I study the ecology and evolution of plant defenses and how the plant microbiome can affect their defenses. The microbiome can help plants acquire nutrients and tolerate stress, which often interacts with the ability of plants to ward off attackers.

LSA: What interested you about ecology and evolutionary biology? Are these areas you always knew you wanted to explore?

MH: I didn’t always know I’d explore these areas, but I’ve always liked plants. I didn’t become interested in becoming a biologist until I took a plant biology class in college, where I learned about plant defenses. I’ve always grown plants because I thought they were pretty, but I used to think of them simply as passive organisms. It wasn’t until I learned about how they can activate certain defenses when in danger that I saw them in a different light. I realized they are much more dynamic and far from helpless victims in an ecosystem. 

Then, right around the time I started graduate school, research about the human microbiome was taking off. Researchers became interested in understanding plant and soil microbiomes, too. Seeing the work that human microbiome researchers did really made me feel that a career in the field of ecology was in reach. I used to think of ecologists as the tough, wilderness explorers that traveled around the world to remote places. Which is cool, but it didn’t seem accessible to me. Seeing researchers studying what goes on in the human gut or on the tip of your finger changed the way I saw the field of ecology. I enjoy being outdoors and I do field work, but most of my work is done in a lab or greenhouse here on campus. All of the plants I study have cosmopolitan distributions, so you can find them on the side of the highway or growing in sidewalk cracks. To be a good ecologist, I didn’t have to study an exotic orchid in another part of the world—there was lots of interesting ecology going on in the white clovers growing in the soccer field right next door. 

LSA: The LSA Collegiate Fellows program seeks to support exceptional scholars in the liberal arts who are committed to diversity in the academy. Why is promoting diversity in the academy a cause you’ve undertaken? Why is it important to you?

MH: I think it’s important that people see there are so many different types of ecologists. That was critical to me when I was a student trying to figure out my path, what I wanted to study. Hopefully this will encourage more people to study ecology. I have a lot of respect for the ecologists who travel to remote areas and make amazing discoveries, but you can also be a fantastic and productive ecologist without leaving your computer.

Secondly, all ecologists know the value of biodiversity, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to diversify our field. A lot of our world’s ecological challenges—like climate change and habitat destruction—have disproportionate impacts on people from disadvantaged communities. So aside from the ethical issue that arises from this area of study being inaccessible to those that might be interested in it, broadening participation in the field is crucial to mitigating the consequences of ecological disasters.

LSA: Why should your research matter to the average person? What’s the big picture?

MH: My research is generally pretty basic, but understanding plant defenses and plant-microbe interactions is important in agriculture. Every year, it’s estimated that 10 to 20 percent of potential crop yields are lost because of insect pest damage. Understanding plant defense processes can have implications in the field of agriculture as more and more crop pests become resistant to pesticides, and as we increasingly find that agricultural chemicals can have deleterious effects on both our health and the environment. I also study the mutualisms that plants form with microbes to acquire essential nutrients, such as nitrogen. Understanding how we can optimize these relationships could help us reduce fertilizer usage and make agriculture more sustainable.

LSA: What do you hope students gain or take away from your research?

MH: I hope they know plants are really cool. I think a lot of students view plants the way I used to, as passive organisms. I hope they can see what I do and view plants in a different light, that they’re active organisms with many tricks up their sleeves for thwarting hungry herbivores and surviving in stressful environments. I also want students to realize there are many ways to be an ecologist if it’s a field they were ever considering exploring a little more. There’s amazing ecology happening outside, on campus, or even in your own backyard, so they don’t have to look far to find something interesting!


​​*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mia Howard is a 2022 LSA Collegiate Fellow. This story is part of a series highlighting the research of LSA Collegiate Fellows, a program of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan. The LSA Collegiate Fellows is one of the most innovative programs in higher education, recruiting and retaining faculty who are experts in their fields and have demonstrated commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion through their scholarship, teaching, and/or engagement.


Image courtesy of Mia Howard