Biology Graduate Student Spends Summer Researching in Japan
Kelsey Martinez, a third-year biology Ph.D. student and Crystal Lake, Illinois resident, spent last summer researching plants in Japan, thanks to a National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship. The East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes (EAPSI) fellowship is co-funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and covered all travel and lodging expenses, in addition to a stipend and research supply funding.
Martinez’s research in Jason Fridley’s lab compares the physiology and function of different plants, particularly differences in leaves’ efficiency at gathering carbon and turning it into sugar. She makes these comparisons in locally occurring native North American plants and invaders from East Asia. The fellowship enabled Martinez to investigate the invaders’ leaf physiology on their home turf. During her time as an EAPSI fellow, Martinez worked with Kouki Hikosaka at Tohoku University in Sendai. While in the Hikosaka lab, she developed new chemistry skills to investigate how leaves use a limited resource—nitrogen. “Without my time in Sendai, I would have had to spend a lot of time learning those lab techniques alone,” she says. Wprking in a lab with colleagues who speak a different language was difficult, but enlightening, she notes. There was, however, the camaraderie of working on a floor full of plant ecologists. “I know we share a lot of resources in our department, but it was really neat to see lots of professors and students working together on projects in the same lab spaces in Sendai,” she says.
Studying invasive plants
Martinez’s dissertation research stems from a key difference between native North American and invasive East Asian plants. During photosynthesis, plants capture energy from the sun to convert carbon into sugars, but the invaders do a better job of it than locals. The end result of this imbalance is invasive species out-competing local plants and threatening local ecosystems—and Martinez wants to know why. “I measure photosynthetic rates and compare chemical processes in leaves to understand how invaders use nitrogen, a scarce resource, to capture energy,” she says. She also points to a hypothesis for invasive plants’ disproportionate success: “We think invaders might have different leaf traits or nitrogen use strategies that allow them to capture more energy than our North American species.”
To test that hypothesis, Martinez focused on shade-loving plants in Japan, including Japanese honeysuckle, Japanese barberry and burning bush. She also gathered data to compare how leaves function in these North American invaders as compared to other Japanese plants that are not invasive. She plans to present preliminary data from her EAPSI research at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in August.
Next summer, Martinez will compare how plants in Central New York function in comparison to what she found in Japan. She hopes these comparisons will lead to a better understanding of why invasive species are a threat to local ecosystems. In addition to bringing home research skills, Martinez also completed her EAPSI fellowship with fond sightseeing memories, including hiking Mount Fuji to see the sunrise, or goraiko: “A group of EAPSI fellows hiked up to a mountain hut in the evening, then woke up around 2 a.m., to finish hiking to the summit for goraiko,” she says. “I remember looking up the mountain around 3 a.m., and seeing a trail of headlights to the summit. When we got up there it was freezing, but seeing the sun rise over a layer of clouds is something I'll never forget.”