NEW LAB MEMBER: DR. JERRY (GERALD) SCHNEIDER

Welcoming Dr. Jerry (Gerald) Schneider to our lab! Jerry is joining the Beckman Research Group as a postdoctoral researcher. Jerry is a chemical ecologist, broadly interested in the ecology and evolution of phytochemistry at the whole-plant level. Jerry obtained his PhD at the University of Utah. Before joining the Beckman Research Group, Jerry was based at Dr. Susan Whitehead’s lab at Virginia Tech as a postdoctoral researcher.

WHAT IS YOUR RESEARCH FOCUS?

Plants use specialized chemicals, often referred to as phytochemicals, to mediate many of their interactions with animals and other plants as well as with their physical environment. In tropical forest ecosystems, phytochemicals have been implicated in generating and sustaining the stunning variety of tropical plant species and the complexity of their webs of interactions. My research focuses on exploring the diversity of these phytochemicals in its ecological and evolutionary interplay with the varied – and potentially conflicting – selective pressures facing tropical plants. More specifically, I am interested in the patterns and processes underlying organ-specific phytochemical adaptations, e.g. chemicals found only in fruit pulp, and the translation of organ-specific selective pressures to species-level phytochemical trait evolution.

HOW DID YOU GET INTERESTED IN THIS KIND OF RESEARCH?

Why are there so many species of tropical plants? This question has driven my research interests since I first heard it asked by my graduate advisor. I soon learned that one of the answers may lie in the expansive ecological niche spaces generated by the diversification of phytochemicals. This focused my interest on further questions: does a given tropical plant species utilize its phytochemical tools differently in different ecological situations? And from a practical standpoint, can we quantify and compare phytochemical diversity when a single species may contain hundreds of phytochemical compounds? I began to explore these questions during graduate school, and I am thrilled to be continuing that exploration with the Beckman Research Group.

CAN YOU DESCRIBE SOME OF YOUR PAST RESEARCH?

Most of my research has focused on quantifying the intraspecific variability of phytochemical traits. I’ve pursued this route of research in the contexts of plant and leaf ontogeny, solar radiation gradients, air pollution, and most recently a comparison of plant organs. In the latter study, my collaborators and I compared the phytochemical diversity and richness of leaves, fruit, and seeds of 12 sympatric species of the genus Piper. These species of Piper are involved in interactions with Piper-specialized animals at both the leaf and fruit levels, making Piper an ideal genus for an initial exploration of organ-specific phytochemical trait patterns.

WHAT MADE YOU CHOOSE UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY/ THE BECKMAN RESEARCH GROUP?

I have collaborated with and been informally mentored by Dr. Beckman for several years and having become familiar with the approach to research and professional and personal growth in the Beckman Group, I knew it would be an ideal fit for me. In particular, I value the Beckman Group’s expansive and transdisciplinary approach to ecology, where I am eager to apply my particular set of skills while learning many new ones, as well as the inclusive and supportive group ethos that facilitate this experience.

WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AFTER YOU’RE DONE HERE?

Ultimately, I would like to secure a professional position in ecological research that would allow me to continue to develop my area of research and address associated ecological problems precipitated by global change. These goals could be most thoroughly realized through a professorship at a research university or a staff scientist position at a governmental research organization.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO IN YOUR FREE TIME?

I enjoy spending time with plants recreationally as well as professionally, maintaining a probably-too-large collection of house plants. I am also fond of many kinds of outdoor activities, live music, museums, and a variety of literature.

TELL ME YOUR BEST FIELD WORK/ RESEARCH-RELATED STORY.

I was working on a project in a Panamanian rainforest that involved collecting leaves directly from the canopies of mature trees. Fortunately, this rainforest is equipped with a canopy access crane – essentially a 50-meter tall construction crane mounted on a large cement block in the middle of the forest, with a passenger gondola suspended from the boom. In addition to facilitating sample collection, the canopy crane allows for uniquely close encounters with wildlife, as its quiet movement tends not to cause disturbance. I frequently encountered a three-toed sloth ensconced and dining in the crown of one of the taller trees in the area, a species which stores copious amounts of white, milky latex in most of its tissues. The sloth’s choice of meal resulted in the margins of its mouth often being covered in latex, giving it the appearance of a milk mustache. Got latex?

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