Campus News Faculty Spotlight

UGA professor builds understanding of how natural communities form

Anny Chung is an assistant professor jointly appointed in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Department of Plant Pathology and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Department of Plant Biology. (Photo by Chamberlain Smith/UGA)

Anny Chung studies how microbes shape ecosystems

Anny Chung studies the smaller things in life—microbes in plants and soils, to be exact. And though microscopic, these organisms can influence entire ecosystems by altering a plant’s ability to survive and thrive.

A University of Georgia plant biologist and ecologist, Chung is interested in how these patterns can affect changing weather patterns. As an assistant professor jointly appointed in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Department of Plant Pathology and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Department of Plant Biology, Chung studies how plant-microbe interactions shift the landscape—which plants are most abundant, how ecosystems change over time and the nature of the relationship between the plant and its microbes. Through her research, she has found that microbes can shape an entire ecosystem from underground up.

Despite microbes not having the charisma of butterflies or bees—flagship organisms that serve as mascots for conservation—Chung hopes people will come to understand the outsized role they play in nature.

“I hope people get an appreciation for all the things that go on in the background of what we think about when we think of nature,” Chung said. “There are things that you can’t necessarily see, but they are the building blocks of the much larger picture.”

Chung classifies herself as an ecologist, although she fell into the field largely by accident while an undergraduate studying biology at Washington University in St. Louis. Struggling to find summer internship opportunities as an international student, she finally found an opportunity doing summer fieldwork at the Tyson Research Center.

“I ended up learning a lot that summer, and I just kept going back each year. I graduated from being an intern to doing independent research and learning how to write proposals,” said Chung. “I think that helped me to develop as a scientist much earlier than I could have in other scenarios.”

During that initial summer learning about ecology and sampling methods, Chung developed a love for fieldwork and the camaraderie with her fellow researchers. When she returned to college in the fall, she enrolled in ecology classes and forged her path in ecological research. Following graduation, she earned her doctoral degree at the University of New Mexico studying the influence of belowground microbes on plant competition and coexistence.

Anny Chung’s lab focuses on various aspects of natural ecosystems. (Photo by Chamberlain Smith/UGA)

Since joining UGA in 2019, the Chung lab has focused on various aspects of natural ecosystems, and how microbes can be a crucial puzzle piece to understanding the effects of and the solutions to changing climates.

Chung now advises her own doctoral students, who are working on diverse projects involving everything from the impacts of carbon dioxide on plant-microbe interactions in desert ecosystems to the role of hemiparasitic plants as ecosystem engineers. Chung finds value in being a mentor and has enjoyed helping her students uncover their own research interests.

“I invest a lot of time into mentoring. One of the highlights of being a faculty member with a lab at UGA is having wonderful students who do amazing things,” she said. “My students all have topics that are really different from one another, and sometimes outside of my research experience, so it’s interesting to have the opportunity to learn from them as I help them develop their research.”

On Feb. 16, Chung was announced as a runner-up for the Tansley Medal, an international award for early career excellence in plant science.

“It is a huge honor to be considered and have made it this far in the competition for the Tansley Medal,” Chung said. “Plant science is so broad, and it feels very special to represent my little corner of the discipline on such a big stage.”