Rice University graduate student Marion Donald is the recipient of the Ann Miller Gonzales Graduate Research Grant for 2017.
Marion Donald is researching the microorganisms in the floral nectar of Texas wildflowers. Her goal is to understand how these microscopic organisms can affect plant reproduction and habitat restoration. Previous research in California revealed that certain microbes can alter plant-pollinator mutualisms, which plants may depend on for reproduction. A mutualism is a positive interaction between two organisms. These plant-pollinator mutualisms are especially important when it comes to restoring habitats. Marion has studied nectar microbes in habitat fragments in Costa Rica and is excited to turn her attention to the wildflowers found across Texas, especially in natural and restored Costal Prairie habitats. Her work will compare the composition of nectar microbe communities in wildflowers growing in natural and restored habitats to assess if restoration of the nectar microbiome accompanies successful restoration of the plants. Later, Marion will determine how the various microbial partners affect plant reproduction, which has clear consequences for both natural and restored habitats and whether they flourish or fail.
Since the advent of human civilization, natural habitats have been transformed to suit human needs, generally to the detriment of other species. These disturbances often result in loss of biodiversity (fewer species) and ecosystem services (e.g., loss of pollinators, flood effect reductions). However, attempts at restoring natural habitats in modified landscapes have become common with the placement of arboretums, “pocket” prairies, and other natural areas embedded within our cities. Recently, researchers have recognized the importance of microorganisms in habitat restoration.
With the increase in available technology to identify these microorganisms in both identity and function (e.g., DNA sequencing and metagenomics), it may be possible to facilitate landscape restoration by employing these tiny organisms in novel ways. Efforts to restore the coastal prairie often occur in the forms of “pocket” prairies, many times in the center of large cities, such as Houston. Successful restoration of these pocket prairies is important for maintaining biodiversity and substantially reducing flooding in urban areas. By understanding how microbes influence pollination and plant reproduction, landscape restoration may be implemented successfully in various habitats, both natural and restored.
Marion grew up in Maryland with her three brothers and moved to Houston to attend college at Rice University. She was captain of the Rice Women’s Club soccer team and college bike team. She is also a triathlete and member of the Rice Master’s swim team. As an undergraduate she joined Dr. Tom Miller’s ecology lab to study native Texas grasses and their microbial symbionts. This early research experience motivated her to pursue a Ph.D. at Rice University, where she is focusing on plant-pollinator-microbe interactions in Texas and in Costa Rica. She enjoys visiting local Houston K-12 schools with her fellow grad students to teach modules on a range of topics including the biodiversity of coral reefs to the maintenance of food webs in the Texas desert. She intends to develop a lesson focused on native wildflowers and their nectar microbes to teach concepts of ecological communities to students.
The Ann Miller Gonzales Research Grant is awarded annually based on applications submitted to our Grants & Scholarship Committee. It is funded through gifts and donations and through money raised in the silent auctions held during our annual fall symposiums. Learn more about the grant and the application process.