Ecologist Spotlight: Geoffrey Zahn

Welcome to the Ecologist Spotlight column!

We seek out ecologists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to highlight their work and share their stories and experiences. Thank you to Geoffrey Zahn for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.

Geoff at the Mycological Society of America meeting in Fairbanks Alaska. Photo credit: Klara Scharnagl.

Please state your current affiliation.

Geoff: I am a new faculty member in the biology department at Utah Valley University.

Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.

Geoff: I completed my PhD at the University of Arkansas where I studied soil protists’ roles in the carbon cycle, switched to fungal endophytes for a postdoc at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and now I’m trying to figure out how to combine the two topics in a way that makes sense. UVU is an undergraduate teaching institution, but I’ve got a bunch of great research students looking at various aspects of fungal ecology. One group is studying the effect of diet and exercise on the fungi in the human mouth, another group is investigating fungal community recovery in soils after forest fires, and a third is using the Great Salt Lake as a system to look for environmental limits on extremophilic fungal communities.  The common theme is that all of these projects are interested in the causes and consequences of fungal community structure.

Why is it important to study the micro-biome of plants?

Geoff: During my postdoc, one of our projects was giving fungal “probiotics” to a group of critically-endangered plants to try to increase their survival in the wild. This approach actually worked! An analogy might be appropriate: As we learn more about human health, we are discovering that the microbes on our skin and in our gut seem to play major roles in modifying human disease. Plants are no different. We can’t just think of plants as plants. We have to consider them as a whole, and that includes the myriad microbial species that inhabit their roots and shoots. If we don’t do this, we are missing half of the picture and our efforts to improve agriculture or protect endangered species won’t be as effective as possible.

Can two individuals of the same species differ in their associated microbial communities?

Geoff: Absolutely. This is a tricky question though, because certain types of plant-associated microbes show different patterns. Some are more commensal and can vary a lot, while some are host-specific. One of the frontiers of plant microbiomes is determining what drives (or allows for) the intraspecific variety we see, and what that ultimately means in an ecological context for the plants.

Geoff climbing up to cliff-side caves to look for slime molds in Arkansas. Photo credit: Laura Walker.

What first interested you in ecology?

Geoff: As an undergrad at Missouri State University, I worked in a yeast genetics lab. The work was interesting and rewarding, but it wasn’t checking all the boxes, so to speak, for what made me study biology in the first place. My wonderful advisor perhaps sensed this, and gave me an opportunity to do some data collection for a forest fire project he was working on. It suddenly clicked for me that ecology was what I was looking for the whole time!

What has inspired you in your career?

Geoff: Maybe it’s because of my first experiences with ecology as an undergrad, or maybe it’s just some sort of cosmic punishment for crimes in my past, but I’ve been inclined toward applied ecology. The idea that the principles of ecology can be used to find solutions for real questions about how to manage a landscape or save an endangered species has been very inspiring to me. It keeps me going. When we can communicate science appropriately to the people who are making management decisions, and when those solutions are successful….that’s the ideal I strive for.

Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.

Geoff: If you had asked me this a year ago, I would have told you a story about working with rare plant managers, using microbial ecology to restore a population of plants that was extinct in the wild. But now, honestly, my favorite research moments are watching my students get excited about their own projects. They may never become ecologists, but they are learning ecology and I like to think that they realize, from time to time, that their work might actually be useful and may inform others on how to best manage natural resources.

The current Zahn lab students at Utah Valley University. Photo credit: Geoff Zahn.

Who is someone that you have never met but whose research you have always admired?

Geoff: I’ve been obsessed with Antarctica for quite a while and while I’d love to go there to do some work in those Dry Valley Soils, I mostly consider Antarctic research “fun reading.” Still, I’ve learned a lot from all those papers and two researchers in particular: Diana Wall (Colorado State Univ.) and Ross Virginia (Dartmouth College). Both of them do such great work, and while their papers are serious and rigorous, in my mind they read like adventure stories!

What is a challenge that you faced as a student, young professional, or early career faculty member and how did you work through it? 

Geoff: I failed out of college twice during my undergraduate education. And I dropped out once, for good measure. For me, it was a matter of accidentally finding something that I actually wanted to work toward. I was a bit lazy, perhaps, or just not motivated. My classes felt like they were isolated events, totally bereft of meaning. I didn’t see an end goal. But one weekend (while unemployed and soon after leaving my education for the third time) the Audubon Society Field Guide to Mushrooms changed that. I became absolutely awestruck by all the pictures in that book and resolved, on the spot, to go back to school and spend the rest of my life trying to learn as much about them as I could. For me, it was a matter of accidentally finding something I loved that would make all those classes worth it!

What do you do in your “off” time?

Geoff: Writing lessons, reading papers, and working on grants. Well, in my “real” off time I love to garden and cook. Playing in the dirt never gets old and all that academic stress melts away.

If you met a 10 year old who was interested in ecology, what would you say to encourage them?

Geoff: Don’t do it. Ecology is only for people who like to look at cool stuff all the time and who constantly learn about new cool stuff to look at. It’s for people who want to figure out how to save endangered species, fix the climate, or stop the spread human diseases. Does tracking a carbon atom as it’s sucked in by a plant, turned into sugar, squeezed into the soil and taken up by a mushroom and then eaten by an insect which is eaten by a bird and then eaten by you sound like fun? Does it sound like fun to hike into a jungle like Indiana Jones to find a rare orchid and bring back it’s pollen to a greenhouse to save the species? Would it be fun to find a totally new species of bacteria and figure out how to stop it from killing people? Didn’t think so.