What is your field and why does it inspire you? Why did you choose this field?
I am a microbial community ecologist, which means I work with microbes and think about the reasons we see certain species and families group together more often than not. As a microbial ecologist, I have worked with a variety of microbes including fungi, bacteria, and viruses, but I primarily work with plants and their microbes. Plants are particularly interesting to me because they have a long evolutionary history with their microbes (it's rare to find a plant fossil without its accompanying fungi!), but it's only recently that we as a scientific community started to explore what those microbes are doing to the plant and to each other. Thinking about these interactions and what they mean in a larger context like climate change keeps me busy.
Describe your current research.
While at NIMBioS I am investigating how coevolution works in diverse multi-species interactions. I am particularly interested in exploring the relative importance of biotic and abiotic sources of selection for trait evolution in plants. Interactions among plants and their microbes provide an ecologically unique arena in which to examine the nature of selection in multispecies interactions because plants interact with a suite of belowground microorganisms including mutualistic mycorrhizal fungi. My current work utilizes a two-pronged approach to investigate the evolutionary dynamics of plants and their mycorrhizal fungi via statistical models and meta-analytical techniques. Using this unique approach allows me to answer questions regarding the relative importance of different selective sources at both the ecological and mechanistic level and represents one of the first explicit tests for the relative roles of sources of selection in shaping co-evolutionary relationships.
How does your work benefit society?
Whenever I'm asked this question, I always say, "You like to eat right?" Plant microbes have a plethora of functions, both good and bad, that impact our daily lives. On the negative side, the world's food supply is under constant threat from plant pathogens, as evidenced by the recent spread of wheat rust, often referred to as the "polio of agriculture," and Panama disease, a fungal disease threatening to wipe out almost all of the banana plantations. But on the positive side we have mycorrhizal fungi, which associate with over 80% of all land plants and help boast the plant's ability to withstand stresses, like disease or nutrient limitations. Understanding how these fungi have co-evolved with their host plants is important for understanding not only the natural world, but agricultural systems as well.
What do you like best about your work?
I love that my job changes so frequently. On any given day I come to work in the morning ready to work on new analyses, write a manuscript, maintain a greenhouse experiment, spend time in the molecular lab processing field samples, mentor undergraduate and graduate students, or bring science to students at the local elementary school. While some people see the above task list and get overwhelmed, I thrive on having such a diversity of activities at my disposal.
What would your Tweet say about your work?
@megrua NIMBioS postdoc. Explorer of plants and their microbes.
What would your elevator speech say?
I am a microbial community ecologist interested in the ecological and evolutionary factors that shape microbial communities. My research spans a broad array of study systems, but I'm primarily interested in plant microbes, particularly those of trees. I employ a diverse range of methods to investigate these topics including traditional mathematical theory and complex statistical models, as well as empirical work in the form of greenhouse and field studies.
Which professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the fact that I finished my doctorate! Graduate school is designed to push you to your limits in all aspects and the ability to survive that period is something that cannot be underplayed. It gives you confidence that you can succeed and that you belong.
On the other hand, what has been your most discouraging professional moment and how did you recover? What did you learn?
Anytime an experiment does not go as planned or code for a model constantly returns an error (or gives non-sensical results) it is discouraging. The best way to overcome these discouraging moments is to switch to another task. If that's not possible, it's definitely time for a break! For me that can involve going for a short walk or getting a fresh cup of tea. It also helps to remember that these frustrations are only temporary and that you've overcome them before. This is also why it's incredibly important to celebrate all accomplishments, even the small ones, because this can give you strength for the larger setbacks.
What is the best professional advice you ever received?
The dirty little secret of academic science is that it's filled with rejection. Papers, grant applications it can seem like a barrage of rejection and when you're just getting started, it is very overwhelming. As an undergraduate I was lucky enough to have an honors thesis that was publication worthy, but the process of getting it published was distressing for me as it was rejected not once but twice. As an over-achiever, I wasn't used to this type of rejection, but my mentor gave me advice that I still think back on, "Every paper has a home, you just need to find the right journal." The stakes are higher now and the pile of rejection letters is equally as high, but with every rejection letter I remind myself of his words and it softens the blow a little bit.
What is the most surprising aspect of your work?
I have a sign on my wall that says "Some people think scientists exclaim Eureka! when doing experiments but they're more likely to say Huh?" and I would have to say that this phrase typifies my work. I'm constantly surprised by the results of my projects! It's a rare day when my hypotheses and results actually line up and that's part of what keeps me engaged. There's something incredibly special about being the first person to find a particular result, and it's even more exciting when that result turns conventional theory on its head. Lucky for me, I work in a system where very little is known (plant microbes), so almost all of my hypotheses based on what we know about microbes in other systems (like humans or animals), which invariably do not line up with what happens in plants. Everything is surprising!
What do you do when you're not in the lab or out in the field?
When I'm not working, I'm seeking out new adventures, both local and faraway. I've hiked in Patagonia and Africa, but more recently you can find me exploring the Smokies and local parts of the Appalachian Trail. I also enjoy running, especially with my dog Chari.