SMOKINCHOICES (and other musings)

August 13, 2013

OSU’s ‘Bug Lady’ professor

CHARLIE BOSS DISPATCH

OSU researcher Mary Gardiner drops a spider in a vial while performing research in a vacant lot in Cleveland.

URBAN ENTOMOLOGIST

OSU researcher awarded federal grant to study spiders, insects in

vacant city lots

By Charlie Boss • THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Before the bugs, it was beer. • While Mary Gardiner was working on her master’s degree at the University of Idaho in 1999, she considered a career studying hops production at a brewery. • But she soon found her calling. • “I learned I was more interested in the research than the particular crop that I was working on,” said Gardiner, an assistant professor at Ohio State University’s Department of Entomology. • Today, most of her research involves her childhood passion: insects.

“I was a kid who had a bunch of bug catchers, chambers and nets,” said Gardiner, 36. “It was always something I was interested in.”

Gardiner said she hopes that her research will help cities better plan for the future.

And it’s the role of those insects and spiders as nature’s storytellers that gets her excited.

“Insects are a really valuable indicator of environmental change,” she said.

“If you change something different — apply a chemical or there is some kind of toxin introduced into an environment or there’s a forest fire — insects are one of the first to respond to that change.”

Since joining the OSU entomology faculty in 2009, Gardiner has studied exotic Asian lady beetles and how they feed on the eggs of native-born beetles.

She’s examined the common buckthorn shrub, which might be the key to eradicating an invasive parasite responsible for millions of dollars of lost soybean crops across the Midwest.

And her latest effort is studying insects that inhabit Cleveland’s vacant lots — work that has gained national attention.

CHARLIE BOSS DISPATCH Gardiner teaches in Columbus but spends much of her summers in the field performing research.]

“Urban entomology is quite novel,” said Douglas Landis, entomology professor at Michigan State University and Gardner’s doctoral mentor.

“There’s been a bias (among ecologists) that natural systems were thought to be appropriate systems of study. … We’re coming to realize there’s no part of the globe that hasn’t been touched by human influences.”

In June, she was awarded a $909,200 Faculty Early Career Development Program grant to study 64 empty lots in eight Cleveland neighborhoods.  Landis said the National Science Foundation award will help raise awareness about urban research.   “She determined that this was an important area to study,” Landis said. “That’s why she’s setting the bar.”

Passion for research

Growing up in a farming community along Lake Michigan, Gardiner was drawn to the plants and animals at her doorstep.   But she really started to take notice of changes in the natural environment in Northport, Mich., after a golf course and new homes were built on dunes and lake fronts.

In high-school, she researched the effect of development on fragile habitats for a science project. During her summers in college, she worked with the state park department to study the Pipping Plover shorebird that nests along the shores of the Great Lakes.

“I liked it in the context of wanting to protect this area that I really cared about,” she said. “It’s a very beautiful place, and the people who live there are tied to that landscape.”  She spent her undergraduate college years at the University of Michigan and her time in Idaho trying to figure out her career path.   When she discovered her passion for research, she sought out Landis, considered one of the leading entomologists in landscape ecology.

“When you meet her for two minutes, you know you like this person,” he said. “She engages with anybody almost immediately.  “That’s a special trait. Researchers can be very focused on the lines of the investigation.”

  • As a graduate student, she studied the soybean aphid and how the land could be used to naturally control the predatory insects. She spearheaded the project with entomologists in multiple states to get a better understanding of the issue in a broader landscape.
  • The experience inspired her to investigate how insects and plants interact in a habitat, within larger environments and beyond. For example, she looks at how the interaction among forest organisms changes if that forest is next to a housing subdivision or a parking lot.

“Her findings have shown how important these landscape interactions are,” said Dan Herms, professor and chairman of Ohio State’s Department of Entomology.   “Instead of looking at one vacant lot, she’s looking at the whole map. She looks at the whole mosaic.”

It was the kind of work that Ohio State was interested in when they hired Gardiner as an assistant professor.   “She brings an experience that we were lacking and we were hoping to attract,” Herms said.

The attraction of Cleveland

Gardiner divides her time between Columbus, where she co-teaches insect ecology and presentation skills for scientists during the school year, and Wooster, where she conducts research at the Agricultural Landscape Ecology Lab.

She has spent summers in Cleveland, where she has studied vacant lots since 2009. She said insects can help determine the best uses for the 32,000 acres of abandoned property spread across the city, where about 1,000 homes are demolished each year.   “We’re at a time where a lot of cities are conducting changes,” she said. “It’s an exciting opportunity to inform green-space management and provide a research network for others for a large-area study.”

She wants to know whether these empty lots can be used for community gardens, storm-water runoff areas, natural habitats or even parks.   “We want to be able to predict what kind of outcome we get from a restoration effort,” Gardiner said.   So far, she has examined the lead content in spiders that live in vacant lots to determine whether changes have hurt spiders, insects and plant life.

The five-year National Science Foundation grant will allow Gardiner to expand her work so she can study how restoration efforts affect ecosystems and organisms.    “Those functions are important because plant communities require insects for needed pollination,” she said. “We don’t want a bunch of pest insects in street trees and home gardens.   “These insects are also food for birds and other wildlife, so having a diversity of them also provides that type of resource.”

As part of the grant, she also is developing a curriculum unit for middle- and high-school teachers to have students study how insects and birds in different locations prey on caterpillars. She said she hopes to create a research network with participating schools.

  • She also is juggling other projects, including writing a coffee-table book about insects and working on a rain garden project with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Cleveland Botanical Garden. That project looks at how different types of plants influence stormwater infiltration.

She’s also studying how pesticides influence natural predators in a crop field and how Amish farming practices compare with traditional ones and how they affect water quality.

As for her hops and beers, she never really walked away from that line of research. She is part of a team of OSU researchers trying to identify hops that can grow in Ohio.

  • “I see myself more as a scientist trying to understand (how) the way we use our landscape influences our environment,” she said. cboss@dispatch.com

Mary Gardiner

• Job: Assistant professor of entomology, Ohio State University
• Teaches: Insect ecology
• Time at Ohio State: Four years
• Born: Traverse City, Michigan
• Education: Bachelor’s degree from University of Michigan; Master’s degree from University of Idaho; Doctorate from Michigan State University
• Family: Married
• Lives in: Columbus and Wooster
• Favorite study subjects: Lady beetles and spiders

(My Comment:

Mary Gardiner sounds like a winner to me.  And what a captivating story.    I am hoping, of course, that this smart lady will turn her attention to the plight of bees.  We and they need someone with her brainpower to give this a truly close look. No matter how creative we get, it would be near impossible to do for us what they have gladly done for us all these centuries.  They did it perfectly and for free.  Talk about a divine design.   All we had to do as members – inhabitants of the same planet, is to leave them alone and not hurt them or let anyone else hurt them.

You obviously love what you do little lady – – I’m always for that.  No better way to live.  I wish you joy ad love which seems to be there and all around you.   Looks like we are all gonna be better off, because you are there.    Jan)

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