Student/faculty team researches invasive plants
Before she began her junior year, Danielle Morrissey '11 (above) of Westfield, MA, was awarded not only an undergraduate research grant that allowed her and biologist Emily Mooney, Ph.D., to do important research, but a National Science Foundation-funded fellowship to collaborate with Mooney to complete post-doctoral research this past summer at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA.
With assistance from Cassandra Kessman '11 of Wingdale, NY, and Elizabeth Maldonado '12 of West Boylston, MA, Morrissey and Mooney studied an invasive plant that poses a problem not only in Europe but throughout the United States: Japanese knotweed.
"We chose the Japanese knotweed because they're so hardy and easy to grow," says Mooney, a member of the biology faculty. "Also, it's a huge problem in the Berkshires because it grows so aggressively. It grows anywhere, including in pavement, sidewalks and people's backyards, making things look ugly really quickly."
The challenge, Mooney explains, is how to control the plant's growth. She and Morrissey discovered that the larvae of the beet armyworm consumed Japanese knotweed and gained mass as a result, making them an effective tool to assess levels of plant defense.
"It's not realistic for people to dig up every plant. If we understand how to control it naturally, like with insects, it'll help us to understand why it's growing so rapidly. There's just so much of it," Mooney says.
Over the summer, Morrissey traveled with Mooney to Pennsylvania to research another plant, the spicebush, a long-living shrub that grows in a variety of environments, from dark forest interiors to brighter canopy gaps and edge habitats.
Using both field and molecular techniques, they examined how herbivory-related traits vary with genotype in spicebush. Mooney and Morrissey found that populations respond differently to sun and shade.
"We're looking at a species that occurs in the environment naturally," Mooney explains. "It's important because we live in a green world. Much of nature is plants. They're really the basis of a much larger ecosystem and food chain that we all depend on. Why do some plants not get eaten by insects? What controls the amount of plant that gets eaten by insects?"
Morrissey says working last semester and then during the summer with Mooney confirmed for her that she wants to be a researcher.
"Biology is my first love, but chemistry is a close second. My compromise to combine my loves has been to focus on biochemistry-related fields, although I also have an inner ecologist that loves plants and the woods," Morrissey says.
The experiences not only enhanced her education, but gave Morrissey the opportunity to get to know her professor on a personal level and to become a role model.
"I am very comfortable with Dr. Mooney, and I look up to her. Educationally, of course, it has taught me so much to work with her. I have gained skills in public speaking, Power Point presentations and, of course, how to go about doing research," Morrissey says.
"I love MCLA. I have never once regretted my choice in coming here. The small-school atmosphere allowed me the time to get to know my professors and all of them have influenced me so much," Morrissey continues. "I don't know what I would do without all of the professors here who help me along the way and help me find these opportunities and really be the best that I can be."