Ecologist Spotlight: Stephanie Kivlin

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 Dr. Stephanie Kivlin for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.

Image courtesy of Stephanie Kivlin.

Please state your current affiliation.

Stephanie: I am an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.

Stephanie: I am a microbial and ecosystem ecologist who seeks to connect traits of microbial individuals and populations to carbon cycling dynamics. I do this through a variety of approaches from species distribution modeling to determine niches of unculturable microbial taxa, to population modeling to assess microbial and plant turnover and longevity, to assays of plant and microbial composition at local to global scales. All of these metrics are useful to constrain and inform large-scale carbon cycling models.

What is a phytobiome and how does it help to understand carbon storage in soils? 

Stephanie: The phytobiome is defined as plants and all of the organisms with which they interact. Because plants host 1000s of microorganisms and microbial activity can cause large changes (>10x) in plant biomass, incorporating a holistic view of plant-microbial interactions can inform us to spatial and temporal patterns in plant growth and therefore carbon (C) input belowground. Moreover, plant-associated fungi (mycorrhizas and endophytes) can control soil C storage by either degrading soil organic matter or contributing to its formation. The overall ecosystem-level C budget would be severely inaccurate if we did not account for these plant-microbial interactions.

Your research spans from microbial traits and population demographics to the role of microbial ecology in large-scale carbon flux. This sounds highly multidisciplinary, what kind of strategies do you use for managing these types of complex projects?

Stephanie: Ecosystems cannot be understood without acknowledging the biotic interactions that occur within them. For example, population density dependence can control the biomass of microbial populations, their function, and their interactions with other organisms. My research aims to incorporate these dynamics to provide a first-principles-based understanding of how soil microbial biomass and community composition affect ecosystem carbon and nutrient cycling. While this research requires that we span many levels of biological organization (from genes, to organisms, populations, and communities), this approach will ultimately provide the most realistic view of microbial communities and the ecosystem processes that they mediate.

To organize and synthesize these processes, I collaborate with a wide range of scientists from organismal biologists to ecosystem ecologists and modelers. By creating an overarching framework, we each contribute to modules which are then integrated to assess questions like: (1) how does the abundance of functional genes targeted toward specific carbon compounds related to overall soil C budgets and cycling rates? (2) how do shifts in microbial composition and gene expression affect overall plant primary productivity? We use a hierarchical modeling approach to connect these dynamics across spatial and temporal scales.

What first interested you in ecology?

Stephanie: As an undergraduate, I was interested in genetic engineering of microorganisms. I quickly discovered that microbial distributions were poorly characterized in natural systems. Quick, name a microorganism that lives outside your window (no cheating with mushroom-producing fungi)! I doubt you can, and I can’t either. I realized without basic knowledge of where these microorganisms exist in the environment and the factors that control their distributions, we will never be able to scale functional assays in the laboratory to have real world applications.

Image credit: Christine Hawkes.

What has inspired you in your career?

Stephanie: Microorganisms. I’ve always been curious about what maintains microbial diversity in communities with 1000s of species and how they influence ecosystem dynamics over space and time.

Mentors. I have been extremely fortunate to work with a great group of scientists throughout my career, who consistently push the bounds of our scientific knowledge in ways that are inspiring on a daily basis. They provide great role models not only for conceptualizing science across biological, spatial, and temporal scales, but also for mentoring the next generation of young scientists.

Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.

Stephanie: My favorite research moments are always in the field. Studying organisms that you cannot see precludes a lot of the immediate “aha moments”, but field work is always so rewarding. I remember setting up greenhouses to measure the effects of global warming during a blizzard in Alaska, measuring plant vital rates on a mountain top in Colorado in freezing rain, or collecting soil cores during an earthquake in Costa Rica. The data from those experiments always seems SO much more satisfying!

You have mentored a variety of high school and undergraduate students. Do you have any tips for mentors who are new to working with young scientists?

Stephanie: Mentoring is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job! I would not be a scientist without many hours of thoughtful discussions with my previous mentors. Because I’m a first-generation college student, I understand that engaging with professional researchers can be intimidating at first. Moreover, I realize that high school or undergraduate GPA is not necessary an indicator of scientific promise. Therefore, I encourage mentors to be open-minded. Accept anyone who expresses scientific interest in your study organism, meet them where they are professionally and treat them like a colleague. This will advance their sense of place within the scientific community and you most likely will learn something from them along the way!

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

Stephanie: Alfred Russel Wallace. It would be amazing to talk to the founder of the field of biogeography and tell him about what we are achieving in the microbial realm. I am sure he would have advice for the future of our field.

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

Stephanie: One of the most challenging aspects of science is finding a sense of place. Will I get into graduate school? Will I get that fellowship/grant? Will I get a faculty job? All of these things will happen if you put in the effort and have good mentorship (and are able to withstand multiple years of faculty searches!).

I have been extremely lucky to have excellent undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and early career faculty mentors. Their guidance and support definitely pushed me to achieve what I have so far in my career. Seek out mentors who know how to motivate and constructively criticize your science. Also build a peer mentoring group to support one another throughout the process. Academia is a challenging but immensely rewarding career. Institutional and peer support are critical. When you do acquire that ultimate faculty or research scientist position all of the years of hard work and lost sleep will be worth it!

Also, it is totally acceptable and admirable to seek “non-traditional” scientific careers. My sister has a PhD in oncology, but currently coordinates clinical trials that have enormous (and immediate) effects on patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Find a mentor who supports YOU, not a pre-conceived notion of what science is or is not.

When you become discouraged by a challenging research problem or unexpected issue, how do you stay motivated?

Stephanie: I always stay motivated by having multiple research projects happening simultaneously. If one is not going well in the lab or a manuscript is in review for a while, there are always other promising research avenues.

What do you do in your “off” time?

Stephanie: It depends. Is it football season? Then I’m watching college football (hook ’em horns!). Otherwise, I enjoy hiking, reading historical fiction, and binge watching Netflix series.

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

Stephanie: Stay curious! There are always more research questions to address. For example, there are millions of microbial species and we’ve only characterized < 1%. Also forge your own path. It’s ok if your parents are not scientists; there are plenty of mentors who will help you find a way to do excellent science in our field. Seek them out!

Scene: *You walk into a local coffee shop* What do you order?

Stephanie: Large coffee, black.