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Using Genetics to Understand Climate Change

Luke Evans

PhD student in Biology

2007 MS in Biology

Hometown: Denver, Colorado

Luke Evans operates in a complex world. A PhD student in biology at Northern Arizona University, he is focused on trying to understand how the basic genetic sequences of a cottonwood tree affect the diverse array of other organisms that depend on it. This holistic look at how particular regions of a genome can influence whole living communities represents a cutting-edge way to study ecosystems. But, according to Luke, this revolutionary approach—known as community and ecosystem genetics—begins with a very simple idea.

"In the realms of conservation and biology, you have to know what matters in order to understand what to conserve, or what to restore," he says. "A lot of state agencies are now required to restore habitat, for example, and it is important to know what makes (restoration) a success or a failure. You have to understand what forces are important in the system: for example, genetic variation in cottonwood trees is important to the microbes in the soil, to the bugs that eat the trees, to the birds that eat the bugs, and to lots of different things."

According to Luke, he became interested in ecology and genetics as an undergraduate student at Dartmouth (NH) College. But, he says, it was a visit to Dartmouth by NAU professor Tom Whitham that drew him to Flagstaff.

"Tom gave a couple of seminars, and I got to meet him and interact with him a little bit," says Luke. "Tom has been a pioneer in the field of community genetics, and I was interested in community ecology and a bit of genetics, and that's what kind of hooked me. So when it came time to think about graduate schools, and where I wanted to be, he seemed like he would be a really good person to work with."

After earning his MS in Biology in 2007, Luke continued on as a PhD student in biology. After spending nearly two years researching how genetic variation in cottonwood trees affected the evolution of bud-galling mites, his work took a new twist: Luke began researching how climate change has affected the evolution of trees. According to Luke, this important—and little-researched—field has the potential to reveal a number of important ecological implications related to conservation and restoration.

"If you want to restore a particular spot, the paradigm has always been to plant local genotypes," he says. "And I think that's been a pretty good status quo. But the fact is we've already seen changes due to climate change, and I'm not sure that status quo will always hold. So 50 years from now, if the last trees in a particular area are just barely hanging on, do you want to plant those trees, or do you want to plant trees from an area that has historically experienced conditions similar to that of the current site? I don't have the answer to that, but I think we have to know the basics to make an informed, ethical judgment."

In seeking to answer these questions, Luke has found support among a number of communities. Already a Science Foundation Arizona Fellow and an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Associate, he recently received a $15,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant to help fund his climate change research. Finding out that the NSF was willing to support his work, he says, was very rewarding.

"I got the call from the NSF that said they were recommending me for full funding and I was kind of speechless," he said. "It was exciting: you put in a lot of work applying for this grant, and it was nice to have it work out."

As he moves forward with his dissertation, Luke remains glad that he headed west following his undergraduate studies. The research has been great, he says, but there are other facets of university life that have been just as enjoyable.

"I've just really enjoyed the people I get to work with—it's a great group," he says. "I've been fortunate in that I get to spend my time working both in the lab and in the field. It's been a lot of fun."