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GCA Scholarships Recipients: The Garden Club of America Awards in Tropical Botany


2018 Jeannine H. Richards

Jeannine H. Richards, a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin, focuses her research on tropical forests where high biodiversity frequently intersects with rapid deforestation rates. Shade grown co ee has become a model system for studying how agriculture that incorporates trees may serve as substitute habitat for forest species. Epiphytes, or air plants, may be especially able
to utilize shade trees as substrate.  ese plants serve a keystone role, cycling nutrients and providing food and habitat for invertebrates and birds. Management decisions alter abiotic environments in co ee farms, a ecting epiphyte assemblages. Richards compares vascular epiphyte richness, composition, and abundance on small and large farms, and links environmental conditions favoring epiphytes to producers’ management decisions.

2018 Juan Carlos Penagos Zuluaga

Juan Carlos Penagos Zuluaga is a PhD candidate studying tropical ecology and evolution at Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Zuluaga’s research integrates ecological and evolutionary approaches to understand the breeding systems of the tropical woody genus Ocotea (Lauraceae or laurel family).  rough molecular analysis, he will aim to determine the number of transitions in breeding systems that have occurred in this group and the evolutionary pathways they have taken. His results will contribute to understanding the evolution of breeding systems in tropical trees and will advance the taxonomy of Lauraceae.

2018 Timothy M. Perez

Timothy M. Perez is a PhD candidate at the University of Miami and a liated with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. His project is titled “Predicting the Susceptibility of Tropical Plants to Climate Change Using Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s Living Collections.” Tropical plants are believed to be close to their high-temperature thresholds, and their heat tolerances may help predict which species are most susceptible to climate change. Perez’s research will harness the diversity of Fairchild’s collections to measure the physical characteristics of leaves and photosynthetic heat tolerances in order to understand which species are in the greatest danger of thermal stress due to global warming.

2018 Nichole Tiernan

Nichole Tiernan is a PhD candidate in a joint program by Florida International University and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Her research focuses on the neotropical genus Plumeria, commonly called frangipani, a charismatic tropical garden plant that grows throughout the Caribbean. Although several species are commonly grown, much remains unknown about them. Tiernan’s research seeks to resolve the confusing taxonomy using molecular phylogenetics and morphological studies.  e revised classi cation also will help inform conservation threats. Systematic studies of threatened plants provide a framework for what and where to conserve, especially in the Caribbean, which is a biodiversity hotspot.

2018 J. Aaron Hogan

J. Aaron Hogan is a PhD candidate at the International Center for Tropical Botany at Florida International University in Miami. Working with Drs. Christopher Baraloto and Oscar Valverde- Barrantes, he is interested in the relationships between root functional traits and other plant characteristics in tropical forests. Speci cally, in collaboration with researchers at the Key Laboratory of Tropical Forest Ecology in Xishuangbanna, China, Hogan is examining how mycorrhizal fungal communities in uence root function and structure.

2017 Alexander Linan

Alexander Linan is a PhD candidate at St. Louis University in affiliation with the Missouri Botanical Garden. His research combines population genomics, phylogenomics, and taxonomy in order to describe species, their evolutionary relationships, and species boundaries in members of the ebony and persimmon tree genus, Diospyros. He will focus on currently undescribed species of Diospyros endemic to Madagascar, and his research will provide insight into their extraordinary diversity in Madagascar. By naming and describing species, strategies can be developed to protect against, and properly control, illegal logging in this group of trees that are sought after for heartwood.
Funded by the Arundel Scholarship

2017 Benton Taylor

Benton Taylor is a PhD candidate in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University. His project is titled “Understanding the Ecological Drivers of Nitrogen Fixation in Regenerating Tropical Forests.” He will focus on the ecology of nitrogenfixing trees in regenerating rainforests in Costa Rica. Regenerating tropical forests is critical to global conservation and climate change mitigation efforts; the nitrogen-fixing trees studied naturally fertilize the regrowth of these tropical forests following disturbance. His research investigates how changes in light and soil-nutrient availability during forest regeneration influences the success and the nitrogen inputs of nitrogen-fixing trees.
Funded by the GCA Visiting Gardens Committee

2017 Meredith Martin

Meredith Martin is a PhD candidate in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, and holds a Cullman Fellowship with the New York Botanical Garden. Her project is titled “Stand Dynamics of Subtropical Pine-Oak Forests in Sierra Norte, Oaxaca, Mexico, and Implications for Firewood Management.” Her research focuses on the ecology of montane pine-oak forests in Oaxaca, Mexico, and specifically on the growth and regeneration dynamics of oaks (Quercus) harvested for firewood and charcoal. While Mexico is a center of diversity for oaks, little is known about the majority of these species or forest types. Her research collaborates with a union of three Zapotec communities, and her results will be used to inform others about sustainable management techniques for firewood. 
Funded by the GCA Visiting Gardens Committee

2017 Natalie Christian

Natalie Christian is a PhD candidate in the Evolution, Ecology and Behavior Graduate Program at Indiana University Bloomington. Her project is titled “Understanding How Plant-endophyte Symbiotic Communities Assemble in Tropical Forests and Identifying the Genetic Mechanisms by which Endophytes Affect Host Well-being.” Her dissertation research takes place in  Panama, where she will study the fungal microbiome of plant leaves. She will combine field collections with manipulative studies and total RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequencing to study how fungal communities are transmitted and assembled in nature to interact within their host and affect plant health. 
Funded by the GCA Visiting Gardens Committee

2016 Meghna Krishnadas

Meghna Krishnadas is a PhD candidate studying Tropical Ecology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. Her research will be conducted in the Western Ghats of India where she will study the ecology of rainforests and how tropical tree communities undergo drastic changes in disturbed and fragmented forests. In long-lived rainforest trees, many diversity-generating processes are strongest at the seed and seedling life-stages. Through field experiments she will test whether loss of top-down regulation of seeds and seedlings by fungal and insect pathogens drives the well-known phenomenon of edge-effects-shifts in species recruitment closer to forest edges. Results from this study will inform restoration and management practices of disturbed tropical rainforests.

Funded by the Visiting Gardens Scholarship



Scholarship Opportunities Abound

The Garden Club of America offers 28 merit-based scholarships and fellowships in 12 areas related to conservation, ecology, horticulture, and pollinator research. In 2018, more than $308,400 was awarded to 65 scholars.

In its inaugural year, the Montine M. Freeman Scholarship in Native Plant Studies was awarded to Angela Merriken and Dr. Uma Venkatesh.

Read more about the new Scholarship and the recipients.