Plants and their environments can tell us much about how the planet is changing, and what may come next.
Tala Awada, a physiological plant ecologist and associate dean for research in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Agricultural Research Division, has spent years learning about climate change through the study of trees and plants. She’s also trekked through the Nebraska Sandhills and the pine forests of Greece to study plants in their environments and solve problems, such as the management of invasive species, changed ecosystems and disease.
Nebraska Today sat down with Awada to talk about her research, how trees and plants act as a window into the future, and what motivated her to become a scientist.
What brought you to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln?
I think at first it was the position itself, and the ability to work in a new ecosystem — the Sandhills of Nebraska. I hadn’t worked in a similar ecosystem before. It was an exciting opportunity to come and work on the ecology of the Sandhills. Twenty years later, we’ve been here and I love the community. I love Lincoln and value the friendships and the connections that we’ve developed.
Were you interested in science or nature as a child?
I think I was a curious kid. I don’t know if I was interested in science, but I was very interested with how things work. I remember that my parents used to give me toys and such, and nothing lasted more than a week. I always had to see how they worked. Even my first watch didn’t make it beyond the week. I was convinced if I put the pieces in sequence, I could disassemble it and assemble it again myself. Obviously, it didn’t work out. I destroyed many toys. I think I was always curious. Finding the specific area I work in now, it came much later, and I think it’s whom you meet throughout your life and how they influence you that really determines where you end up.
Can you give us a summary of your research expertise?
I am a plant ecophysiologist by training, which means I study the physiological interaction of plants with their environment. We can divide this environment into two aspects: the biological environment, such as competition from other plants, microbiome and insects and diseases, and the abiotic environment, which is the temperature, drought, precipitation and so on. This will enable you to understand the mechanisms of plant functions and help you find solutions to problems.
What is the benefit of studying plant ecophysiology in Nebraska?
There is benefit everywhere. I can give you an example. We have issues with the grasslands. One of them is the invasion of Eastern redcedar, or Juniperus virginiana. By understanding how it functions, its efficiency mechanisms, how it grows, reproduces and spreads, how it uses resources, it enables us to manage it better and understand how it will spread in the future with climate change and grasslands management.