Making connections

Chase makes Tyson Research Center a regional hub

Community is a major theme in the life and work of Jonathan M. Chase, Ph.D., associate professor of biology in Arts & Sciences and director of the Tyson Research Center.

As an ecologist, his niche is community ecology, and he is particularly interested in the processes that lead to variation in the numbers and types of species that live in a given site, and how that varies through space and time.

(From left) Jonathan M. Chase, Ph.D., examines plants in Forest Park with doctoral students Lauren Woods and Kristin Powell. “My research is always looking for the middle ground,” Chase says. “We try to understand what the processes are that create variation. In Missouri, we’re right in the middle of an ecological zone where prairies, forests, savannas, streams, natural wetlands and ponds come together.”

Chase has noted, for example, how one wetland may have a whole suite of species that is much different than a wetland that is less than a mile away. Sometimes that variation is quite predictable if, for example, fish are present in one wetland and not in the other. However, sometimes that variation is much less predictable and almost seems random among wetlands that otherwise seem the same.

In coming to WUSTL in 2002 after three years on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, Chase was excited by the strong evolutionary biology core of the WUSTL biology department and by the emerging environmental studies major. He saw willingness from the administration and an opportunity to create “a small, dynamic group of ecologists, committed to building a strong ecology base at the University,” Chase says. “I also saw the Tyson Research Center as a rare opportunity to do my research close to campus.”

The community of ecologists now include Tiffany Knight, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and associate director of environmental studies, who came in 2004, and assistant professors Ellen Damschen, Ph.D., and John Orrock, Ph.D., who came in 2007 — all of whom have made notable contributions to ecology early in their careers.

Network of natural places

The Tyson Research Center, 2,000 acres of bucolic beauty less than 25 miles from the Arch, is another example of Chase’s search for community. Named director of Tyson in 2007 after having served as interim director since 2005, Chase made it a priority to extend the beneficence of the station to the entire WUSTL community as well as other researchers in the St. Louis area and beyond, and to connect to a network of neighboring natural places, including the Missouri Botanical Garden’s nearby Shaw Nature Preserve.

The preserve, a stunning natural area 15 miles west of Tyson, and Tyson have a grant together for an internship project that is enthusiastically supported by Peter Raven, Ph.D., the Engelmann Professor of Botany at WUSTL and director of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

“It’s great for our researchers to go to these other natural areas such as Shaw and several Missouri Department of Conservation areas and examine the variation in their ecosystems,” Chase says. “Even with the 2,000 acres at Tyson, we only get a hint of the variation at play in natural areas.”

The collaboration with Shaw and the Missouri Botanical Garden impressed the National Science Foundation so much that it granted this community of researchers $1.8 million to develop a high-school summer internship program. In its first round, which began last summer, 50 young faces went to Shaw to learn basic skills and research techniques in the part of the program called SHIFT (Shaw Institute for Field Training). This summer, 20 of those same students will ply their newfound skills on research projects with WUSTL faculty and graduate students as part of the Tyson Ecological Research Fellowship.

“We think the grant illustrates that our programs at Tyson and in environmental studies are bursting at the seams,” Chase says.

Chase estimates that the use of Tyson for research and teaching has increased significantly since 2002 and that there are 30-40 active research projects at the site that cut across disciplines.

Research at Tyson also has become one of the thrusts of the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES). I-CARES nurtures collaborations within WUSTL and with regional and international partners in order to contribute to rapid progress in addressing the world’s energy and environmental crisis.

A good scientist

Jonathan M. Chase with his wife, Tiffany Knight.

For a man who loves nature and the science of ecology, Chase’s background is ironic. He grew up in Motown and in Southfield, a suburb of Detroit.

He had a curiosity about animals and plants from an early age, and he found outlets nearby for his interest. A neighborhood cemetery was a favorite place to catch tadpoles and try to raise them in his home. Family vacations often were spent in northern Michigan amid the splendor of the Upper Peninsula. He was inspired in high school by a teacher, Dr. Lahde, who taught a course in natural history that featured live animals in the classroom.

He went to college “40 miles down the road” at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he pursued a natural resources course of study. As an undergraduate, he studied in the Montana mountains for a couple of summers amidst “awesome” scenery; he observed grasshoppers, bison and bighorn sheep and how they and flora reflect large ecological problems.

Chase earned a master’s degree at Utah State University and credits his doctoral program at the University of Chicago and the people there as among the most influential things that have shaped him as an academic.

“I wanted to go to a place where I could really thrive and have a lot of freedom, and I found it there,” Chase says. “I had two advisers, Mathew Leibold and Tim Wootton, who are brilliant individuals, but the most important things they showed me was their passion and the way they carried themselves. From them, I learned how to be a good scientist.”

‘Middle-ground’ approach

Jonathan M. Chase

Hometown: Detroit

Education: B.S., 1992, University of Michigan; M.A., 1995, Utah State University; Ph.D., 1998, University of Chicago

Courses taught: “Experimental Ecology Laboratory,” “Community Ecology” and “Ecology”

Spouse: Tiffany Knight, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology

Little-known fact: Chase was captain of his high-school football team and played end and linebacker.

Chase says that many ecologists are looking for hard and fast rules, either A or B. Is a species’ distribution limited by competition, or is it predation? A nutrient, or pH?

“My research is always looking for the middle ground,” he says. “We try to understand what the processes are that create variation. In Missouri, we’re right in the middle of an ecological zone where prairies, forests, savannas, streams, natural wetlands and ponds come together.”

Early on at WUSTL, Chase’s “middle-ground” approach grew attention. In 2003, Chase and Knight, then a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida, found that the previous year’s drought was the cause of high mosquito populations coming out of wetlands in the following year. This is because some wetlands, which are the home to mosquito larvae, dry during drought years, drastically reducing mosquito predators — from fish to water beetles — and competitor species such as snails, tadpoles and zooplankton.

This conclusion stood the ecological world on its head and, with more extensive scrutiny, eventually could have implications in the prediction and control of diseases like West Nile virus, St. Louis encephalitis and malaria, which are all carried by mosquitoes.

Also, in 2003, Chase published the book “Ecological Niches” with Leibold, Ph.D. The book both solidified and challenged the classic notion of niche theory. Their synthetic niche theory included classical features of niche, such as the resources organisms use as well as their effects on that resource, but also incorporated a variety of other factors such as predation and the role of heterogeneous landscapes and disturbances, such as drought. Further, the theory was able to transcend across traditional subdisciplines of ecology from evolutionary ecology to communities and ecosystems.

The outdoors

In 2004, Chase along with Pieter Johnson, Ph.D., then at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, traced frog deformities in the northern Midwest to eutrophication in ponds and wetlands. Eutrophication creates higher phosphate and nitrogen (prime components of agricultural fertilizer) levels in wet ecosystems. Higher levels of these nutrients cause a profound impact on the food web that imperils frogs’ existence.

Most of the evidence pointed to a frog parasite, but Chase’s study, published in Ecology Letters, hypothesized a more complex tangled web that linked farming practices and development to the eutrophication and frogs’ deformities and deaths.

In 2007, Chase, along with Johnson and others from the University of Wisconsin, published an experimental confirmation of this hypothesis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In 2008, Chase won the Mercer Award from the Ecological Society of America for a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on drought and species homogenization. The award is given to the best ecology paper of the year by an ecologist under 40. At the end of April, Chase will be given an innovation award from the Academy of Science of St. Louis for the achievements of a scientist under 40.

Chase and his wife, Tiffany Knight, enjoy hiking, boating, running, TV, Nintendo Wii and nice meals, but their recreational activities often center on the outdoors.

“One of the top five things I want to do in a given day is ecology,” Chase says. “If Tiffany and I choose to do something outside and we happen to come across a plant or frog that we’d been looking for, we don’t consider it work. We consider it a windfall.”