At the broadest level, I am interested in understanding the drivers of morphological diversification in organisms. I primarily approach this topic using seed plants as a study group, focusing on relationships between form and function in reproductive structures and asking how these interactions generate evolutionary patterns over million-year time scales.  Properly answering these questions requires an understanding of the broader ecological, geological, and climatic contexts in which these changes are occurring, and I therefore use an integrative approach that incorporates techniques from paleontology, biogeography, and phylogenetics. My work particularly focuses on conifers because the group is diverse today but was also important in many ancient ecosystems, and the relationships between morphology and function can be directly tested in living as well as in extinct plants.

Andrew Leslie  PI

My research interests are very broad, but typically center on context-dependent species-interactions and community structures. I use a wide variety of tools from different disciplines to explore how environmental variation, ecological context and evolutionary pressures influence community structure and species interactions. More specifically, I have examined community structures and species interactions from the perspective of population ecology using time series analyses, functional trait evolution using phylogenetic comparative methods, species survival and trait selection using mathematical frequency-dependent models and economic utility models, spatial patterns of community structures and their environmental contexts using GIS methods, and finally, chemical and physical cues involved in species interactions using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and microscopy methods. I believe such multidisciplinary work combined with the use of rigorous quantitative methods allows for a holistic picture of factors influencing community structure. The ultimate goals of my research thus far have been to: 1. Construct a basic understanding of species interactions and community structure as context-dependent phenomena; 2. Develop and utilize quantitative tools to model context-dependent interactions; 3. Use knowledge garnered to inform conservation and management of species of concern.

Mekala Sundaram postdoc

I am interested in structure and function, particularly of non-flowering plants. For my work at Brown, I am focusing on functional and mechanical constraints on reproductive resource allocation in pteridophytes. In particular, I am studying the functional biology of the sporangium – how resources are partitioned within the sporangium (i.e. spore size and packing), and how that in turn affects reproductive allocation more widely. At the organismal level, I work on the biomechanics of spore release in the genus Selaginella, which has developed a variety of active spore release mechanisms based on differential thickening of the sporangium wall. More broadly and on a deeper timescale, I am investigating sporangium and spore size through the Devonian, the period when spores initially increased in size and morphological complexity.

Nikole Bonacorsi  graduate student