Research subjects that grow on trees; international graduate student recognized

Celebrating the 2018 Vanier scholar in the Faculty of Science.

News Staff - 06 September 2018

Award-winning research doesn't grow on trees, but the plants studied by Faculty of Science graduate student Jose Guzman in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences do. This year, Guzman has been awarded the prestigious Vanier scholarship recognizing his academic achievements and research on lianas-woody vines that grow on host trees-and the influence they have on their ecosystems.

The Vaniers are awarded each year by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). These awards equally consider achievements in academic excellence, research, and leadership, aiming to recognize outstanding graduate students at institutions across Canada. The awards support scholars in their studies by providing $50,000 per year for three years.

Read on to hear what this scholarship means to Guzman and his research.

Tell us about your post-secondary career thus far. How did you come to be at the Faculty of Science?

After completing my master's studies in Costa Rica, I started working for a non-profit international organization as a teaching assistant for a field course of biology and as co-supervisor of a thesis student. I realized that I enjoyed the research in the field of plant ecophysiology as well as participation in multidisciplinary studies. I applied for and started the PhD program at the Earth and Atmospheric Science Department at the University of Alberta, under the supervision of Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa. I selected this program and faculty over others because it allows me to conduct interdisciplinary studies at sites in my home country of Costa Rica while being supported by a collaborative research network, such as Tropi-Dry.

 Liana growing around a tree at the Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica.

Liana growing around a tree at the Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica. Photo credit: Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa.

Describe your research in plant ecology.

My research is focused on lianas, an exciting group of plants increasingly important in tropical forests for their diversity, complexity, and role in the ecosystem. Lianas‒woody vines‒are a diverse group of plants that use host trees to climb and reach the forest canopy. Typically, during their development, lianas grow above the foliage of their host trees and reduce the resources available to their host. You can visualize lianas as what Tarzan used to swing through the jungle.

More than a decade ago, studies in tropical forests reported a dramatic increase in liana abundance. Other research shows that a high abundance of lianas is associated with increases in tree mortality, reduction in the survival of seedlings, tree species, fruit production, and ultimately in forest carbon stock. Therefore, the increases in liana abundance are changing the functioning and dynamics of ecosystems. My research project is focused on creating interdisciplinary approaches that help to evaluate the local variability, detect the presence, and quantify the contribution of lianas and trees in the Neotropical Dry Forest, one of the most threatened ecosystems worldwide.

How can research like this address some of our pressing societal challenges, like climate change?

Increases in liana abundance have been considered a footprint of global warming, which has been associated with rising carbon dioxide concentration, availability of water (i.e. droughts), and deforestation. Therefore, efforts like this research may contribute to more accurate predictions of carbon fluxes and the future impact of climate change on tropical ecosystems. It is important to highlight that current models that predict the future carbon cycle in tropical forests in a global warming scenario do not consider lianas in a realistic way. Without a solid understanding of the liana's role in the ecosystem, future predictions of the carbon cycle will remain speculative.

What is it like working with a world-renowned scientist like Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa?

It is valuable! I can't say enough about Sanchez-Azofeifa. The advantages that he provides us are numerous, from introducing us to colleagues of his in the field and establishing contacts and new opportunities with these experts, to being a sounding board to bounce field experiment ideas off of; the experience and wealth of knowledge he gives us is indescribable. It is challenging to describe the benefits of working with Sanchez-Azofeifa in a couple of sentences. If you asked me to summarize working with him in a single word, I would say "support." Support in the form of expertise, facilities, equipment, contacts, and, most importantly, the support from the multidisciplinary team that he has created around him.

What was your first reaction when you found out that you'd be a Vanier scholar?

My first reaction was that I did not have a reaction; I was paralyzed with shock for a minute. I calmed down, read the offer letter again to be sure, hugged a friend, and then I called my wife in Edmonton and my mom in Costa Rica.

What does receiving this funding mean for you?

Being a Vanier scholar means many things to me beyond the funding. It means that our research has the potential to contribute in a great way to the scientific community and to current concerns. It also represents an invaluable opportunity to conduct research with high expectations from faculty and colleagues. Getting funding for my project from the Vanier scholarship is a strong motivator to keep working hard and continue enjoying science as a vocation.

Anything else to add?

All the work that I have done, and will do, would not be possible without the help of many people. I have to thank my past supervisor Roberto Cordero from Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica for his support during my career, my committee members Benoit Rivard and Janice Cooke with whom I always enjoy discussing my research ideas, my lab partners, and, of course, my family. Without their help, I would not be a Vanier scholar.