Athens, Ga. – What began as a breakfast-table discussion between two married University of Georgia professors has led to a $2.5 million grant for a novel interdisciplinary research and education program with China.
The grant from the National Science Foundation will allow a team of researchers to study how various species from China have become invasive in the United States-and vice versa. It will also provide UGA graduate and undergraduate students training opportunities in China.
The project was the brainchild of Rodney Mauricio, an associate professor in the department of genetics, and Karin Myhre, an assistant professor of Asian languages in the department of comparative literature. Myhre and Mauricio, who met through the Lilly Fellows teaching program, are husband and wife, and the proposal to NSF’s Program in International Research and Education grew out of an early morning “what if” conversation over tea.
“Our research team will use forensic genetic techniques to study the genetic structure and population of 10 invasive species, five native to China and invasive in the United States, and five native to the United States and invasive in China,” said Mauricio. “Invasive species are one of the most pressing conservation issues of our day-one of the consequences of globalization-and we have leveraged considerable local scientific talent to address this global crisis.”
While scientific research is an important part of the new grant, the educational aspects are just as important. A number of new assistantships will be available for graduate students who will work on ecological genetics in China. The five-year grant will also pay for 10 undergraduates per year to participate in an eight-week summer field course and research internship in China-a program not limited to students from UGA.
In addition to Mauricio and Myhre, UGA faculty members who are co-principal investigators on the grant include plant biologists Jim Hamrick and Shu-Mei Chang and plant pathologist Ron Walcott in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
“As someone who has taught Chinese language for many years as part of Asian literature and language programs, I have paid close attention to how students can best master a difficult and very different language,” said Myhre. “This grant provides UGA with a unique opportunity- it not only gives students interested in genetics the opportunity to work with top scientists in China, but it also allows those students to gain the linguistic and cultural tools to participate in substantive research work in a fairly short time.”
Undergraduates signing on for the study abroad experience will have some background before they go. They’ll be required to take three courses, intensive Mandarin and introduction to Chinese culture, both to be taught by Myhre, and a lab course in genetics taught by other faculty. But the study abroad itself will offer opportunities like few others for the undergrads, with visits planned to numerous sites in China normally not accessible to tourists.
Many people may be surprised by the number of invasive species from China that can be found in the southern United States. Wisteria, privet and honeysuckle are all Chinese natives that have found a welcome foothold in the South’s climate and geography. None of these is remotely as well-known as China’s coiling stealth dragon: kudzu. Plants aren’t the only invaders, though. Snakehead fish, Asian tiger mosquitoes and Formosan termites are just three Chinese animal species that flourish in the States as well.
While wisteria is lovely in bloom, and kudzu helped reclaim land after massive erosion from poor farming practices, invasive species are largely seen as serious problems. Indeed, in the United States alone, the estimated annual cost in agricultural losses, ecosystem damage and control exceed a staggering $137 billion.
Studying invasive species has been a challenge, though, because it is often hard to coordinate research across international borders.
“To really understand the biological basis of invasiveness, we must study the species in both their native habitats and where they have become invasive,” said Mauricio.
Numerous other researchers and teachers are involved with the grant, including many from UGA, which already has established groups working on invasive species.
“What we may not appreciate is that plants and animals native to the southeastern United States have become serious invasive pests in China as well,” said Mauricio. “This shouldn’t be surprising, since these areas share a number of biological, geographic and climactic characteristics.”