Last month, Professor Patrick Tobin and a team of researchers were awarded an innovative grant from the John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis in Fort Collins, Colo.: “Predicting the next high-impact insect invasion: Elucidating traits and factors determining the risk of introduced herbivorous insects on North American native plants.”
This fall, entering his second full year on the SEFS faculty, Tobin welcomed four new grad students to his newly refurbished “Disturbance Ecology Lab.”
Powell grants are somewhat unique in that they don’t fund new data collection and research, but rather “Working Groups” that mine and synthesize existing data sets to discover overarching trends and insights. For Tobin’s group, they wanted to search for broad patterns in what drives invasiveness on a continental scale. All non-native species initially lack natural predators, he says, and they all generally feed on host plants that haven’t adapted to them. Yet out of 100 introduced insects, there are probably only three or four that become high-impact pests—like the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis)—that are dangerous enough to cause cascading changes to ecosystems. So what’s different about the other 90 to 95 percent of non-native species? What separates the really bad invasive species from the basically benign?
“I’ve dedicated my professional career to this question,” says Tobin, “so I’m excited to have this working group and the resources to really dive into it.”
The ultimate goal of this research is to develop a framework to help predict and prioritize strategies against future insect threats in the United States—with direct applications to invasive species management and risk assessment around the country and world.
The Working Group
When you submit a proposal to the Powell Center, you pitch a project and also a proposed participant list to make up a working group of about 15 scientists. The idea is to bring together a diverse set of specialties and backgrounds to explore an issue as comprehensively as possible. So Tobin’s group includes three co-investigators—Professor Daniel Herms from Ohio State University, Professor Travis Marsico from Arkansas State University, and Dr. Kathryn Thomas, a plant ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey—along with a host of other experts from 12 different universities, ranging from chemical ecologists to population geneticists to forest ecologists.
Emerald ash borer larva.
Their group had submitted this concept two times previously before finally securing the grant—one of four awarded out of 50 proposals in 2015. “We almost didn’t pitch it the third year,” he says, “but we decided to try one more time. You have to be persistent and keep improving your proposal, and you can’t get frustrated. Last year, we had the dubious honor of being the top-ranked proposal not funded. This year we’re the top-ranked proposal overall. Sometimes in the grant process, it’s just a matter of convincing them it’s a good idea, and it can take a couple years to do that.”
The award will cover travel expenses for the researchers to make three weeklong visits to meet as a group at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Fort Collins Science Center, where they will have full access to the facility’s computational, data manipulation and data management resources. They will have plenty of homework in-between these visits, as well, and the grant also includes up to $100,000 for a postdoc to help guide the project for two years.
Tobin says the postdoc, who will be working directly with him and based at SEFS, will be crucial to the success of the project. “The beauty of these working groups is that they really want you to get things done,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for a postdoc to work with this diverse group of people, and they really get to pump out a lot of papers.”
The group’s plan is to meet this coming June for the first time, and Tobin will start looking this fall for a quantitative ecologist to fill the postpoc position. He has also recruited an undergrad at SEFS to help as part of a capstone project.
Photos © Patrick Tobin.
Cactus moth larvae (Cactoblastis cactorum).