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UF/IFAS Fulbright scholar to study unknown biodiversity in Poland

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For six months after she applied for a Fulbright Research Scholarship, Karolina Weclawska’s life was on hold. The University of Florida College of Agricultural and Life Sciences senior said people would ask about her plans for after graduation this spring, and all she could say was, “Well, that’s up to the Fulbright Commission.”

You can’t make alternate plans for the opportunity of a lifetime.

After months of waiting nervously while the commission deliberated over thousands of applications, the commission responded. “I almost brought down the foundation of my house jumping around and screaming,” said Weclawska, who is in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation.

Her project targets an underappreciated area of biodiversity — forest mosses. Mosses provide habitats for microscopic organisms, in turn creating miniature ecosystems. As Weclawska described it, a patch of moss is basically a tiny forest.

And, as allowing other, seemingly unimportant, species to go extinct has shown, neglecting mosses could have unforeseen consequences.

“It’s like saying, we’re going to eliminate trees, but you’re eliminating trees for that level of the ecosystem,” she said.

Beginning September 2017, she will spend nine months to a year creating an index of critically understudied mosses in Poland, her birth country. Poland is home to Białowieża Forest, one of the last primeval forests in the world, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Centre for its biodiversity.

However, most of the woodlands in Poland belong to the government, and are used for industry. Because of this, many of the plant species they house have gone unresearched.

Even so, Weclawska said scientists believe there is enough deadwood within the forests for mosses to thrive.

As there is no complete index of moss species in Poland, part of Weclawska’s proposal involves expanding the list of known species. She has a background in nature photography and plans to use her findings to create a booklet for moss identification.

“I really want to try to capture photos of these mosses that show non-scientific people how beautiful they are,” she said.

The project will culminate with Weclawska giving talks about her research to scientific and lay audiences. One idea involves helping schoolchildren build their own terrariums.

As enthusiastic as Weclawska is to preserve a valuable part of the natural web, she is also looking forward to the other opportunities working in Poland will provide, like traveling and the career boost that pursuing a Fulbright project can bring.

Although she was born in Poland, Weclawska’s family moved to the U.S. when she was small, and she hasn’t traveled anywhere in Europe besides her birth country.

“Combining community outreach, science and art– those are all things that are important to me,” she said. “This was just the perfect next step in my life, and I’m just really, really glad I got it.”