Exploring ecology with molecular tools

My research uses molecular tools, mainly DNA metabarcoding, to probe ecological questions. My current work at Harvard involves using DNA extracted from leeches to identify the animals that the leeches have fed on, in order to monitor changing biodiversity in the Ailao Mountains of China's Yunnan Province. My previous postdoctoral work at Princeton used DNA metabarcoding to explore how termites create spatial patterns in soil microbial communities in African savannas. My PhD research focused on ant-associated microbial and arthropod communities on the Vachellia (Acaciadrepanolobium ant-plants that grow in these savannas, using DNA barcoding, metabarcoding and stable isotope analysis to examine species associations, community compositions and trophic interactions.

  • Flat, uniform savanna landscape

    East African savannas

    The termites and ant-plants that I work on are key ecological components of these flat, uniform landscapes.

  • <i>Vachellia drepanolobium</i> domatium occupied by Crematogaster mimosae ants

    Herbivore protection

    Mutualistic ants protect Vachellia drepanolobium ant-plants against large herbivores like giraffes and elephants

  • Termites constructing entrance towers

    Ecosystem architects

    The effects of termites propagate throughout savanna ecosystems

  • False color satellite image with termite mounds showing as red spots

    Termite spatial ecology

    Termites generate regularly-spaced hotspots of productivity across the otherwise uniform savanna landscape

  • <i>Odontotermes</i> termites in an underground tunnel

    Complex societies

    Individual Odontotermes termites are small, but they live in large colonies that can function like giant organisms.

  • <i>Odontotermes</i> sp. fungal comb

    Fungus farmers

    Odontotermes termites grow fungus for food. The small white bodies are the fungal nodules that the termites eat.