Meet new faculty member Beth Lawrence

BLawrence
Beth Lawrence

As a new member of the natural resources and the environment faculty with a joint appointment in the Center for Environmental Science and Engineering, Beth Lawrence plans to continue her interaction with students, which she considers a satisfying aspect of her work. In addition, Lawrence will further her current research with wetland plants in Michigan and branch out into exploring the ecosystem function in New England’s coastal wetlands. Here is what she told us.

Please give us your CAHNR title and department. I am an assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, with a joint appointment in the Center for Environmental Science and Engineering.

Where did you get your degrees? I received a BS in natural resources from Cornell University in 2001 and a MS in botany and plant pathology from Oregon State University in 2005. In 2011, I completed my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the botany department, where I examined plant community dynamics and carbon cycling in restored wetlands.

What did you do before you came to UConn? As a post-doctoral research associate at Loyola University Chicago, I worked in Great Lakes coastal wetlands examining the impacts of biomass harvest of a wetland invader (hybrid cattail, Typha x glauca) on plant and aquatic macroinvertebrate biodiversity. I continue to explore the impacts of invasive species management on ecosystem function, such as greenhouse gas flux and nutrient cycling. In addition, I am assessing alternative end uses of invasive species biomass as a bioenergy source (pellets, biogas) and soil amendment.

For the past three years, I was an assistant professor at DePaul University in Chicago in the Department of Environmental Science and Studies. This is where I developed several well-received courses related to environmental data analysis, conservation biology and plant identification. I engaged undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds in meaningful research experiences during my investigations exploring several research areas: carbon cycling in restored tall-grass prairie and wetland ecosystems, linkages between urban wildlife habitat usage and vegetation structure, impacts of wetland management on water quality, plant community responses to oak savanna thinning, and the role of plant species on wetland methane flux.

What will your work here at UConn focus on? Broadly, I am interested in applied research related to wetland plant ecology, restoration ecology, carbon cycling and the consequences of plant invasion. I am particularly interested in how different plant species influence ecosystem function and how we can manipulate species composition during restoration to promote diverse, functional communities.

Both Phragmites australis and Typha x glauca are problematic wetland invaders in the northeastern United States. They are more productive than the native plant communities they replace, yet they tend to increase emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. I plan to initiate a mesocosm experiment to investigate how these invaders alter the net carbon balance of wetland ecosystems along nutrient, salinity and water level gradients compared with communities of native plants.

I am a co-principal investigator on an EPA Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant where collaborators and I are investigating the impacts of large-scale (one hectare plots) experimental wetland management, including biomass harvest, crushing and control treatments, on plant biodiversity and water quality in a Typha-invaded wetland in northern Michigan. We recently applied for additional EPA funding to support complimentary research with tribal communities in the region to test invasive plant management treatments on greenhouse gas flux, and fish and amphibian diversity.

I also plan to explore the ecosystem function of coastal wetlands in New England, which are carbon-dense ecosystems that have been largely degraded or transformed. I am interested in examining the effectiveness of coastal wetland restoration on ecosystem resilience in the face of sea level rise and species invasion. Using isotopic techniques, I plan to investigate carbon cycling and the source of methane emissions in these coastal ecosystems.

Name one aspect of your work that you really like. Interacting with students, whether in the classroom, the lab, or the field, is definitely the most satisfying part of my work. My goal as an educator is to foster the development of scientifically literate citizens who are capable of working collaboratively to solve complex environmental problems.

I am an enthusiastic and committed teacher who wants to engage students in authentic activities that promote critical thinking, data analysis and experiences that will further their career objectives. I came to UConn eager to work with its students.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you? I am an avid skier and am dreaming of a white winter. After 10 years in the Midwest, I am excited to take advantage of the topographic heterogeneity of southern New England!

As told to Patsy Evans