Continuing our series on new lab members, Elsa obtained her MS in Ecology and Environmental Sciences from Pondicherry University in Pondicherry, India. Her MS research focused on the evolution and ecology of touch-sensitive stigmas in angiosperms. Elsa will be studying the evolution and ecology of fruit traits in Panama and how these traits mediate plant-animal interactions.
What is your research focus?
I am interested in how species interactions determine plant species abundance and distribution. I would like to focus on seed dispersal and how fruits traits mediate interactions with fruit (/seed) dispersers and predators.
How did you get interested in this kind of research?
During my undergraduate degree in biology I was interested in animal behavior and cognitive sciences. I interned in different labs during the summers and after my bachelors. I got interested in ecology gradually and decided to pursue a masters degree in ecology and environmental sciences.
I developed an interest in plant ecology during my masters and decided to work along those lines for my masters dissertation. My dissertation research was broadly in plant- pollination ecology and focused on the evolution of touch- sensitive stigmas in angiosperms. During this time, I got fascinated by plant- animal interactions and how these can determine ecology and evolution of various plant traits, and species distribution.
Can you describe some of your past research?
I completed a bachelors in biological sciences. First year of my bachelors degree I interned in Dr. R Uma Shaanker’s lab during the summer. I reared silkworms and tested the effect of the anti- cancer drug Camptothecin (CPT) on them, at different concentrations of both the standard CPT and the Nothapodytes nimmoniana plant extract of CPT. This project introduced me to experimental science and I loved it. The summer of my second year I helped in collecting plant phenology data in Dr. Deepak Barua’s lab in Northern Western Ghats, India, which was my first experience in field biology. After my bachelors I interned for a year in Dr. Vishwesha Guttal’s lab, where I helped in setting up fish experiments in the lab. After this I interned in Dr. Kavita Isvaran’s lab where we used meta- analytic approaches to look at female reproductive success. During this time I got interested in ecology and decided to pursue a masters in the field.
My masters research focused on the evolution and ecology of touch-sensitive stigmas in angiosperms, which I did with Dr. Hema Somanathan at IISER, Thiruvananthapuram, India. For this we did a literature review on touch- sensitive stigma and the consequences of this mechanism. We extended this with experiments to look at the causes and consequences of stigma closure in Heterophragma quadriloculare in the Northern parts of Western Ghats in India. After my masters I continued working in the same lab on a project looking at population sizes and species diversity in Myristica swamps in Southern Western Ghats, India.
What made you choose Utah State University/the Beckman Research Group?
I am interested in species interactions, and plant ecology and evolution. Dr. Noelle Beckman’s group conducts research along similar lines. I also want to combine theoretical work and empirical studies, and the Beckman lab essentially provides an opportunity to learn and do both. Utah State University has research groups working in different areas of ecology. This would be great for me to gain exposure and also gain research inputs.
What are your goals after you’re done here?
I would like to continue research, so hopefully post- doctoral work after completing my graduate studies.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I like reading and I also enjoy just walking around.
Tell me your best field work/research-related story.
In India, most of the field work is accomplished with the help of field assistants. They are mostly tribal or local people who have knowledge of the routes and about species in the area (and exceptional tolerance to researchers who demand uncommon schedules). For my masters work I had to do some pollinator observations at night as the species had a nocturnal pollinator. One of those days I was waiting for one of the field assistants who used to come with me at night. Unfortunately he had some unexpected work and I thought I would miss the half moon observation. Then his wife kindly offered to come with me till he comes back. I was so pleasantly surprised that someone who does so much work at the farm and at home would offer to come and watch me stare at trees during her sleeping time. In fact, one of the things I enjoyed most in the field is the hospitality of the village people and their warmth. This made me realize how much our science depends on the support of underprivileged and indigenous people.