Dr. Melinda D. Smith
Principal Investigator

Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Colorado State University
(203) 432-9422

I am a plant community ecologist interested in understanding patterns, determinants, and dynamics of diversity and species abundance and how these relate to ecosystem function. I conduct most of my research in the field; however, I also conduct lab work. I focus on grassland ecosystems, in particular tallgrass prairies in the Central Great Plains of the U.S., but I am also initiating research locally in New England old field and salt marsh communities.

Nathan Lemoine, PhD
Research Scientist


Nate received his BS in Biology from the University of Richmond, an MS in Marine Sciences from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, and his PhD in Biology from Florida International University. He is a community ecologist that seeks to understand how climate change will impact plant community structure and ecosystem function through altered trophic interactions, particularly those of insect herbivores.


Francis ChavesFrancis Chaves
PhD Student

Francis is a PhD student from Colombia where she received her M.S. in Ecology from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. She has experience with plant ecology in tropical high altitude ecosystems. As a Fulbright Scholar with the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, she investigates biodiversity’s role in grassland ecosystem function, including the effects of species loss on ecosystem function and plant community response.

Jesse Gray 
PhD Candidate

Jesse is a PhD candidate from Salt Lake City, Utah, where he received his bachelor’s in Biology, with an emphasis in organismal and environmental biology. He uses experimental approaches to study mechanisms resulting in plant species codominance in grassland ecosystems, and how such relationships may affect community assembly and ecosystem function using the model tallgrass species Andropogon gerardii and Sorghastrum nutans. Jesse is further interested in the effects that environmental factors such as warming, drought, and increased variability in rainfall patterns will have on these mechanisms, and thus whether the stability of codominant relationships may be vulnerable to climate change.

Ava HoffmanAva Hoffman
PhD Candidate


Ava is a PhD candidate from Richmond, Virginia interested in gene expression, drought responses, and genotypic interactions in prairie grasses. She comes from University of Virginia, where she focused on gene screening techniques for agriculture. Studying both the ecology and genetics of Andropogon, she is exploring how dominant species affect ecosystem function. She hopes to integrate her research with ecosystem management in grasslands, sustainable agriculture, and biofuels.

Leena Vilonen
PhD Student

Leena studies how belowground processes respond to disturbances in grassland ecosystems. Specifically, her research assesses soil microbial community response to drought and invasive, non-native grasses, such as Bluestems. Leena also studies how functioning in these microbial communities influences soil nitrogen and carbon cycling. Through her research, Leena seeks to understand both the short-term and legacy effects of disturbances on soil microbial community composition and


Wei Mao, PhD

As a community ecologist, Wei studies how leaf functional traits influence plant community dynamics. His current research assesses climate change’s effects (e.g. drought, snowfall fluctuations, and water table variability) on plant community structure and function. Wei’s ultimate goal involves building a model that integrates climate data with plant functional and genetic traits to predict plant community niches at different scales.

Kate Wilkins, PhD


Kate is a conservation scientist and community ecologist who uses ecology and science communication to address major environmental challenges. As a postdoc, Kate will manage and synthesize data collected from DroughtNeta global network of researchers using the same methods to assess how extreme drought affects grasslands. Kate is also committed to encouraging underrepresented groups to pursue careers in the ecological sciences and interested in finding ways to retain these groups.



Deron Burkepile, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at The University of California, Santa Barbara

Catherine E. Burns, Ph.D. works with The Nature Conservancy, California Chapter and is Associate Director, Water and Habitat for Nature

Stephanie Eby, Ph.D. is a visiting lecturer at Assumption College, Framingham State University, and Northeastern University

Sally Koerner, Ph.D. is a Post-Doctoral Associate at University of South Florida

Qiang Yu, Ph.D. is a Professor at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences

Graduate Students

Andrew Felton (Ph.D. 2018) is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Utah State University

Lauren Baur (M.S. 2016) is a Research Associate with the EDGE Project

Beth Forrestel (Ph.D. 2015) is a Post-Doctoral Associate at the University of California, Davis

John Dietrich (M.S. 2015)

Kimberly (Kim) La Pierre (Ph.D. 2013) is a Post-Doctoral Associate at the University of California, Berkeley

Meghan Avolio (Ph.D. 2012) is a SESYNC-LTER Postdoctoral Synthesis Fellow

Cynthia Chang (Ph.D. 2011) is an Assistant Professor at University of Washington, Bothell

Undergraduate Students

Lauren Hallett

Daniel Robotham

Lab Associates

Jeff Carroll

Melissa Johnston

Victoria (Tory) Nelson

Tadj Schreck

Lab Mascot