Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ibáñez receives NSF early-career award for forest study

Inés Ibáñez, a forest ecologist and assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment and LSA, has received a $750,000 award from the National Science Foundation to study forest dynamics under global change.


Inés Ibáñez has received a National Science Foundation award for her five-year study of forests in northern and southern Michigan. (Photo courtesy of School of Natural Resources and Environment)

Results of her five-year study of forests in northern and southern Michigan may help land managers and policy makers maintain stable tree populations as they adapt to environmental changes from invasive species to climate change.

Ibáñez is one of 500 scientists whose past accomplishments and future research ideas were recognized through a competitive process. The NSF makes the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program awards annually to junior faculty (not yet tenured) for outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within their organizations.

Ibáñez earned her doctoral degree in 2006, and joined SNRE two years later. She teaches in the conservation ecology field of study and has a dual appointment with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology within LSA.

Forests are the natural vegetation of about half of the eastern United States, and a current goal within the field of ecology is to understand how changes in climate, landscape configuration and species assemblages, affect the structure and composition of forests, Ibáñez said. To manage forests sustainably, policy makers and land users need to be able to plan for the likely complicating effects of global change, she added.

“In the case of forest, one of the main reasons why our knowledge is limited is because we still lack critical information about the recruitment dynamics of tree species under those novel conditions,” she said.

Her project studies this challenge by focusing on one aspect of forest dynamics: the recruitment of new trees into the forest as seedlings. The research seeks to measure the individual and collective influence of a range of forces, from climate change and landscape fragmentation to invasive species. Landscape fragmentation describes how humans have modified the landscape, such that instead of having continuous forested land, fragmented forests now are surrounded by agricultural fields, cities and roads.

These interconnected influences form the novel environment under which plants are growing, Ibáñez said. “The fact that forest communities are highly dependent on recruitment dynamics makes the study of early demographic stages critical for understanding the impact of global change on the forest ecosystems around us,” she said.

Her work examines several dominant tree species in the temperate deciduous forests of eastern North America, using sites from northern to southern Michigan. It combines field-based, observational, and experimental work with statistical analyses and modeling of the recruitment dynamics.

The results may help forecast future forest structure and composition.

In addition, her research tools, methods, and results will become the basis for classroom learning materials to be produced for K-12 and university students. The materials will aim to foster scientific literacy by explaining how scientific modeling works, specifically those that describe and predict climate change impacts on forests.