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.


Francis ChavesFrancis Chavez
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.

Mary Linabury 
PhD Student

Mary is interested in how climate change influences plant communities and how it will shape future ecosystems. She has particular interest in plant species composition and wants to understand how changes to composition will affect the surrounding ecosystem, including functionality, stability, and interaction networks. Her research aims to enhance our ability to predict ecological response to climate change. In addition to these research goals, Mary also has interests in science communication with the goal of improving scientific literacy.

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 functioning.


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 manages various projects that assess how drought affects grasslands in the US (EDGE) and globally (DroughtNet). Kate would also like to explore the combined effects of grazing and drought in grassland ecosystems. In addition to her research pursuits, Kate is 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 an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina- Greensboro

Nathan Lemoine, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University

Wei Mao, P.h.D. is an Associate Professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences

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 an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Davis

John Dietrich (M.S. 2015)

Ava Hoffman (P.h.D. 2019) is a Data Scientist with the Boston Consulting Group

Kimberly (Kim) La Pierre (Ph.D. 2013) is a Senior Scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Meghan Avolio (Ph.D. 2012) is an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University

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