Doctorates receive EPA STAR Fellowships to study ecosystems, reptiles

Elisse Lorenc

Rory Telemeco and Leanne Martin, doctorates in ecology and evolutionary biology, received Environmental Protection Agency STAR Fellowships — a program that grants up to $42,000 to students to help complete related research.

“It’s a fellowship that both masters and Ph.D. students can apply for as a graduate student and it helps because there’s not a whole lot of fellowships that graduates in our field can apply for,” Martin said.

“A lot of times you have to get funding through your professor. It provides a stipend for us while we’re conducting our research, so it allows us to focus solely on research and it gives us money to go towards our actual research activities as well,” Martin said.

The funds not only help both students focus on their research, but grants Telemeco the time and distance needed to conduct his research with the possible effects climate change has on alligator lizards.

“They relieve me from teaching duties,” Telemeco said. “I can spend more time doing the research. I’m not tied to campus quite as strongly so I can go out into the field. The reproductive season for this species in San Diego starts in February and a little later farther north.”

Reptiles are susceptible to climate change, more specifically the eggs the mother lizard lays, Telemeco said.

Reptiles in general are ectotherms, meaning their entire biology is temperature dependent. Most adults can thermoregulate behaviorally to keep their body at a preferred temperature, he said.

“It’s a little bit trickier for the eggs though,” Telemeco said. “Females have to lay the eggs somewhere and they’re going to be susceptible to whatever the environment is throughout incubation even though temperature has just as strong effects on them, they just can’t move around.

“If it gets too hot or the temperatures change too rapidly the females might not be able to respond adequately and you end up with all boys or all girls in a population which obviously has its downsides,” Telemeco said.

With the money provided, Telemeco hopes to develop a bioclimatic envelope model which will help define temperature ranges that the lizards can exist and reproduce with.

“Once you define the envelope, you can use climate predictions to see how the envelope is going to change in time,” Telemeco said. “So if they can exist here at this point in time, in 50 years if everything increases a degree and a half like it’s expected in precipitation, then you can see how the envelope is going to shift. You can determine how quickly the envelope is going to move and any predictions about how any of these organisms are likely to change.”

Martin said the fellowship helps contribute to her research on ecosystems. Specifically she compares native and exotic grasslands using plant diversity and an abundance of pollinators as indicators for human benefits.

“Diversity in general is often at times thought to be an indicator of high levels of ecosystem functioning,” Martin said.

If there’s high levels of plant diversity, high numbers of species with an even distribution can be expected, along with high numbers in pollinators.

“Pollinators are really important in grasslands and non-grasslands,” said Brian Wilsey, professor in ecology, evolution and organismal biology. “A lot of crops are pollinated by insects, a lot of trees are pollinated by insects. There’s been less work on pollinators, so scientists would like to know where our pollinators are located on the landscape and that’s what she’s going to look at.”

With funds for her research, Martin said the avocation of the importance of grasslands is essential.

“Grasslands provide a majority of grazing land for all kinds of different grazers and species worldwide that depend on them,” Martin said. “We obviously in the United States utilize grasslands a lot for cattle.”

Grasslands also are known to filter soils, which helps remove the nitrogen from harmful chemicals such as pesticides from seeping into streams.

“Formally about a third of our country is grassland, so they’re really important for biodiversity,” Wilsey said. “All kinds of plants and animals that live out there. There can be really diverse areas and they’re important for human uses such as raising cattle and growing hay.”

Along with the funding earned from the fellowship, Martin and Telemeco plan to attend the EPA symposium in Washington, D.C., every year to discuss with other graduate students their work in progress.

“It’s an opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., and meet other graduate students involved in the same fellowship,” Martin said. “It’s also an opportunity to show people what you’ve been doing, what you’ve accomplished.”

Having Martin and Telemeco attending the symposium makes Iowa State connected with the outside world so we’re part of the greater community, and makes it a more national program, Wilsey said.