By Patrick Farrar
Four outstanding graduate students in UF’s School of Natural Resources and Environment have received the prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program awards from the National Science Foundation. The highly-competitive five-year fellowship grants them substantial financial support for their research and education. The SNRE recipients are: Atlantic Forest
- Nick Gengler
- Maggie Jones
- Ben Lowe
- Adam Searles
This series of blog posts serves to highlight these four students and their research interests.
Although Maggie Jones received this award three years ago while working on her master’s degree at Iowa State University, the fellowship continues for her current Ph.D. research.
Her thesis research focused on how contraception affected feral horse behavior in North Carolina. Although she loved the experience, she was looking to expand her abilities as an ecologist and tackle more questions that could help conserve and manage nature.
“I wanted to be a more broadly useful scientist,” she said.
She found a position advertised on a conservation job board working with UF faculty in South Africa. It involved studying large mammals internationally, which ticked several boxes for her.
Working on this project for her Ph.D., she investigates how large mammals affect trees in South African savannahs. Trees are critical resources in savannahs for birds, bats, insects, and other animals that live there. They also are influenced by the herbivores that eat them.
Two of the species Maggie studies in South African savannahs, knobthorn and marula trees. Photo credit: Maggie Jones.
For instance, elephants are abundant in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Maggie’s primary study site. Since the area is protected, their populations can grow quickly. As they eat large trees in the savannahs there, tree populations can be diminished when there are many elephants around.
Maggie wants to see how tree populations respond to these changes and if they can recover. The overall project she is part of involves monitoring changes in the diversity of many living things in the region over time.
Last summer, she was able to do some preliminary research in South Africa and Eswatini. She worked alongside a “women in science” initiative that sponsored African students to do fieldwork in natural resources.
“It was really great to work with them… we tagged about 600 trees that we’ll hopefully get to go back to and see how they’re doing,” she said.
Although she was able to do this preliminary work, her primary fieldwork has been delayed by COVID-19. She hopes to get back in the field as soon as possible.
In the meantime, Maggie uses data from these study sites gathered since 2013 in lieu of collecting new data herself. If it seems unlikely that she can go back to Africa in the spring, she will consider studying more local systems.
“Plants and herbivores are pretty much everywhere, so the questions that I’m asking luckily can be transferred, but I’d rather work on them in South Africa,” she said.