Partnering with MUBG to pass along the ‘bug’ for ecology research

MU Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Lauren Sullivan

MU Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Lauren Sullivan poses by the door to her lab. Sullivan’s research includes investigations into seed dispersal on prairies.

“Before I took a Botany of Northern Michigan class in college, I’d never been in bogs, places where plants have built up over a long period of time — magical places where you can stick your hand down into the decomposing plant material. Before that, I thought there were five plants total. It was so fascinating,” said Lauren Sullivan an assistant professor of biological sciences in MU’s College of Arts and Science of her first real foray into nature.


As a member of Mizzou’s faculty, Sullivan now creates outdoor adventures for her own students but as a girl growing up in Michigan, she said she had such an aversion to the natural world — because she spent no time outdoors — that her parents took her to a psychologist for her fear of insects.


But something about her college general ecology class tickled her fancy.


“Most of the people I attended class with had spent time outside,” she said. “I found I liked the environment the class produced, the people I talked to, the places we got to go. From that class, I decided to try ecology research. It was a cool challenge. I really liked it,” she said.


After graduation, Sullivan got additional research experience through two separate year-long internships, first as a research technician at the Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, Fla., and then as the lead research technician at The Corridor Project in South Carolina.


“Those experiences allowed me to develop my own projects and see how research worked,” she said. “I became really interested in dispersal, or how plants and animals move. In Florida I studied seed dispersal of a rare plant by ants. In South Carolina I worked on the Corridor Project, which was an experiment examining habitat corridors. My project looked at how plant pathogens and parasites moved along habitat corridors.”


Dispersal became Sullivan’s research passion. She went on to earn a PhD at Iowa State and did a postdoc at the University of Minnesota.


Not long after Sullivan’s husband Ryan Williams got offered his dream job in St. Louis in 2016 as a data scientist for Bayer Crop Science, she landed what she describes as her dream job at the University of Missouri.


“I love it here,” she said.


MU Assistant Professor of Biological Science Lauren Sullivan and grad students Maya Parker-Smith and Katherine Wynne collecting seed rain carpets at Tucker Prairie

Left to right MU Assistant Professor of Biological Science Lauren Sullivan and grad students Maya Parker-Smith and Katherine Wynne collecting seed rain carpets at Tucker Prairie.

Seed dispersal in the Show-Me state

MU Assistant Professor in Biological Sciences Lauren Sullivan poses with a seed-sorter in her lab

MU Assistant Professor in Biological Sciences Lauren Sullivan poses with a seed-sorter in her lab. She and her grad students use the device to sort seeds they are collecting on remnant and restored prairies as part of their seed dispersal and biodiversity research.

“As soon as we got to Missouri, I was working on Tucker Prairie,” Sullivan said. “As a graduate student, I had read a seminal paper by Deborah Rabinowitz and Jody Rapp on seed rain on Missouri’s Tucker Prairie. I got this crazy idea to redo that study, now 40 years old.


“One of my grad students, Katherine Wynne, was super excited about the project and took it on. Her work looks at natural dispersal in remnant — never been plowed — and restored prairies, and she is investigating if we can rely on seed dispersal to increase biodiversity in grasslands naturally.”


The research involves placing Astroturf carpet squares on the prairie to catch seeds dispersed from the plants, also called seed rain, and then returning the squares to the lab to remove and identify the “trapped” seeds.


Sullivan is a member of a larger grassland network research group with 36 sites worldwide and a focus on plant disturbance and fertilization. That group has adopted the Astroturf technique.

A student collaboration with MUBG

“I got to know Pete Millier [Mizzou Botanic Garden Director] through Barb Sonderman [a now-retired MU senior research technician and teaching assistant],” Sullivan said. “He wanted to know how his restored prairies were doing. Were the native plant species establishing? Were they offering habitat for insects?


“I need projects for students and there’s a lot of ecology right here on campus; there’s a lot we can do without having to travel. It’s great for students.”


Sullivan devised a student lab project to analyze data collected from the restored prairie sites to be used to inform Landscape Services about the types of ecosystem services restored sites were providing compared to “exotic” turf sites. Students had to analyze the collected data, create a food web for both the restored and exotic areas and write up a report for Landscape Services.


Kelsey Jaeger

Kelsey Jaeger

Kelsey Jaeger, a junior from Centralia who is working on a bachelor’s of science degree in biology with a minor in chemistry said that teaching assistants did the fieldwork in her section but her group did the lab work.


“We identified different insects and looked at the differences between the native restored area and the exotics,” she said. “We found all metrics increased in the native restored area.”


Jaeger said there were more and different species of insects present in the restored area and that there were more options for food in the native versus the exotic sites.


“It was one of my first hands-on experiences actually examining bugs. The results lined up with our hypothesis.”


Lisette Perez, a senior from Chicago, is earning a bachelor’s of science degree in Natural Resources Science and Management with an emphasis on human dimensions. She said she first visited Mizzou in the summer of 2015 and fell in love with the campus.


Lisette Perez

Lisette Perez

“I liked the programs and could see myself succeeding here. Students back home in Chicago always talked about the great things MU had to offer. I’m very interested in the people side of natural resources; the social sciences behind them and environmental policy.”


Perez worked in a group that collected data at the restored prairie and exotic sites.


“We went out and trapped insects and categorized them. We analyzed the data from both sites for the abundance of diversity,” Perez said. “The total number of insects at the native site outweighed those at the exotic site. We looked at the food web of all insects present and there were more options for food in the native versus the exotic site too.


“I had not had this kind of hands-on experience and it definitely provided me with skills that I hadn’t experienced. Data collection and analysis skills are things I can use in my future work.”


Jaeger said she plans to go to grad school and that this project worked well with her program.


“I chose general ecology. I’ve gotten a basic foundation and now want to get deeper into it. I’m taking it day by day, learning things about myself,” she added. “I would like to document communities working with wildlife. It’s interesting to me to see how humans have interacted with nature.”


Sullivan said her outdoor experiences as a student are what propelled her into her current career.


“And now I’m trying to give those opportunities to my students here, and they were able to do that in collaboration with Mizzou Botanic Garden.”