Dr. Melinda D. Smith
Principal Investigator

Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Colorado State University

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.


Carina Donne 
PhD Candidate

Carina received his Bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Art and his Master’s degree in Integrative Biology from the University of Iowa, where he studied the evolution and ecology of an invasive freshwater snail species. Carina also pursued his passion of science communication through his involvements with the Iowa City Science Booster Club. At Colorado State University, Carina brings his expertise into the exciting world of soil microbiology.  Specifically, Carina is researching how microbial communities respond to drought in grassland ecosystems. Through his research, Carina hopes to further our understanding and appreciation of the vital role soil microbes play in ecosystems processes. When he’s not in the lab or out in the field, you can find Carina mastering Legend of Zelda games, working on artwork, or basking in the great outdoors of Colorado.

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 Candidate

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.

Nico Matallana
PhD Student

Nico received his undergraduate degrees from the University of Montana, where he studied restoration ecology and plant biology. After several years of traveling and working seasonally as a botanist, he started his current research in Montana’s Glacier National Park. He is collaborating with park managers and CSU researchers to study how bison reintroduction may affect the park’s ecology after more than 120 years of their exclusion. Through his research, he hopes to answer questions that will help guide management and answer pertinent ecological questions.

Maggie Ross
Master’s Student

Maggie is interested in the impact of global change on plant community structure and function. For her graduate research, Maggie’s work explores the mechanisms that explain differences in how plant communities recover after a multi-year drought. Her project will focus on recovery of shortgrass, mixed-grass, and tallgrass prairie ecosystems across the Great Plains as part of the Extreme Drought in Grasslands Experiment (EDGE). Maggie received a Bachelor’s in environmental studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2014. After graduation, she moved to Montana where she spent the summers as a field botanist/research technician and the winters working with the University of Montana Herbarium.

Alex Siggers
PhD Student 

Alex is interested in the temporal dynamics of shifting below- and aboveground communities in response to climate extremes. He is currently working on a collaborative project in grassland ecosystems to understand the resilience & recovery of microbial communities following long-term experimental drought. Alex received his Bachelor’s in Biology from Georgia College & State University in 2021 and worked extensively with multiple nonprofit organizations during his undergraduate experience.

Leena Vilonen
PhD Candidate

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 (e.g. Bluestems). Leena also studies how functioning in these microbial communities influences soil nitrogen and carbon cycling. Through her research, Leena seeks to understand short-term and legacy effects of disturbances on soil microbial community composition and functioning.


Kate Wilkins, PhD, She/her(s)

Website  |  Twitter: @CubanKate

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 and globally (DroughtNet). Kate would also like to explore the combined effects of grazing and drought in grassland ecosystems. Kate’s research also explores how to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in academia. In addition to her research pursuits, Kate is committed to encouraging historically excluded groups to pursue careers in the ecological sciences and interested in finding ways to retain these groups. *Photo panels [left to right]: Shortgrass, mixed-grass, and tallgrass prairies (photos taken at US project sites in August 2020)


Tai Mei Chang | Aidan Cruz | Gabriel Cordova | Natasha Daney | Thany Dykson | Inés Marti Devolx | Ben Miller | Sarah Perryman | Jewelyssa Rodriguez | Annika Thompson | Conner Wilson



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

Francis Chavez (Ph.D. 2020), e-mail:

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