September 30, 2016
Saving Native Plants
College of Science and Mathematics student wins grant and award
Kennesaw State University (KSU) master’s student Brandy Riekert’s passion for conservation biology translated into two major wins recently, which provide a combined $5,000 in grant and award monies. Both reward her research on the Harper’s Dodder, a rare and endangered native plant vine known to grow only in Georgia and Alabama.
Riekert was awarded a $4,500 Catherine H. Beattie Fellowship award from the Garden Club of America and Center for Plant Conservation, and the Jeane Reeves Research Grant from the Georgia Native Plant Societyfor $500, according to Professor of Biology Susan M. E. Smith, coordinator of the master’s program in Integrative Biology.
“It is a huge achievement to win one grant as a student, but two is amazing,” Smith said.
Riekert’s research examines population genetics and distribution of Harper's Dodder (Cuscuta harperi), a rare and threatened parasitic vine native to a few scattered populations in Georgia and Alabama. A member of the Convolvulaceae (morning-glory) family, the annual Harper’s Dodder is a coiling orange vampire vine with tiny white flowers smaller than the head of a pin. It lacks leaves and roots to acquire food, so its uses specialized structures known as haustoria to attach primarily to Small-headed Blazing star and Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod in the spring and summer to extract water and nutrients.
“It is a habitat specialist,” Riekert explained, “occurring only on particular sandstone and granite outcrops, and it is also specialized as to the host plants it can grow on, overwhelmingly utilizing only two wildflowers in the sunflower family.”
Riekert, who is on track to graduate with a master’s degree this spring, is further investigating through greenhouse experiments and field research why the vine is attracted to these specific wildflowers.
“I am asking several interesting questions about population distribution and genetic relationships within the limited range of my research organism, Harper's Dodder,” she said. “I also have a branch of my project that involves outplanting of the species, which is rare and considered at risk of extinction, onto protected habitats, as well as genetic safeguarding of populations in partnership with local conservation agencies and botanical gardens.”
Her transplant work in this project was instrumental in her receiving the Jeane Reeves Research Grant, she explained.
“The Jeane Reeves Research Grant is specifically described as supporting protection of native plants and the relocation of endangered plants to protected areas, so I feel like that aspect of my project was likely a large factor in the decision to award me the grant,” Riekert said.
Conservation of different plant species is important to the continuation of any ecosystem’s success, and perhaps none more so than an endangered species like the Harper’s Dodder.
“While some related species are known to be agricultural pests, Harper's Dodder is so specialized to its host and habitat that it poses no risk to crops or garden ornamentals,” she said. “It also appears to have little to no effect on the fitness of its wildflower hosts.
“It is of conservation interest as a charismatic botanical species, and worth protecting as part of the overarching goal of preservation of biodiversity. Additionally, studying the mechanisms of host use in a non-weedy species within the genus Cuscuta can potentially give insight into the mechanisms that lead to weediness and crop damage in other members of the genus.”
Riekert, who also received a Dalton State Foundation Summer Research Stipend as an undergraduate for her work with captive conservation of endangered turtles, plans to continue working on the conservation-based part of her project after completing her thesis work.
“I have always been passionate about conservation biology, and I am particularly interested in managing for protection of endangered species that are at risk due to habitat misuse and destruction,” Riekert said. “Also, I am intrigued by the unique life history of my research organism, and the extreme heat and drought conditions under which it grows in its rock outcrop habitat.”
After completing her master’s degree at Kennesaw State, Riekert plans to teach at a community college.
“I want to mentor undergraduates at that level who are interested in pursuing research,” she said. “I am also interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in the future.”
Assistant Professor of Biology Joel McNeal, who serves as Riekert’s major professor, said, “Brandy hit the ground running from the moment she arrived in my lab, spending nearly every Friday and many weekends traveling across Georgia and Alabama to complete all of her seed and DNA sampling during her first three months in our graduate program. Her success in acquiring external funding is a testament to her abilities as a field biologist, a lab scientist, and an excellent scientific writer and communicator.”