I’m a sixth year PhD candidate in the Ellner lab, studying plant-insect interactions and phenology. My approach to research is to develop theoretical models that are closely tied to empirical systems to answer questions that both fascinate me and are important to furthering our understanding of ecology and evolutionary biology. Where it’s most efficient to work with existing data, I do so; otherwise I carry out targeted experiments to inform, parameterize, or test my models.
(1) Why do plants invest in multiple defense traits, and why are the combinations of traits non-random? Unlike most animals, plants are unable to escape from predators by moving – instead they have a number of defense traits, from thorns and hairs to deadly toxins. Most plant species have several defense traits at once, and previous work has shown that plants tend to fall into several separate combinations of defense traits called “Defense Syndromes”. For example, most milkweed species have high levels of toxins or high levels of latex and defensive hairs, but not both. I’ve been carrying out experiments with monarch butterflies and swamp milkweed beetles to understand why milkweed plants invest in multiple defense traits, and why different species fall into specific defense syndromes. I’m also constructing a mechanistic mathematical model to generalize my understanding to other plant taxa.
(2) How can strategies for using environmental cues evolve in different climates, and how does that evolution influence how species respond to climate change? This work focuses on phenology – specifically, on how plants and animals use environmental cues like temperature, moisture, and photoperiod to decide when to germinate or hatch in the spring. Come out too early, and they might freeze from a late frost. Come out too late, and they’ve missed the peak growing season. In collaboration with Louie Yang at UC Davis, I’ve developed a simulation model that uses real climate data to understand how strategies of cue use might vary across North America.
When I’m not working on my research projects, I teach middle school students about plants, insects, soils, and ecology (last year students constructed their own flowering plants to match specific herbivores and pollinators – the results were awesome!). I’m also dedicated to helping graduate and undergraduate students develop their quantitative skills, and have helped teach classes and workshops on various math and programming tools. I tweet about science (mostly) at @edwards_evoeco, and write about science, math, and and science tools on my website, evo-eco.org.