After growing her research skills at West Virginia University for years, Sara Souther is embarking on a new journey to save plant life threatened by global climate change.

Souther, who is in her fifth year as a Ph.D. student in biology, values biodiversity and is making it a priority as she prepares to go into the postdoctoral world as a recipient of a prestigious award.

“I have a long-standing love of the natural world, and therefore feel a responsibility to help prevent further human-driven loss of species,” Souther said. “I also am keenly aware that erosion of biodiversity impoverishes the human experience in tangible ways – ecosystems provide us with life-giving services, like oxygen production, and with medicines, foods, and other necessities. This project is important to me because it evaluates a practice that may be our last resort for preventing extinctions as the climate changes.”

Souther has been named a postdoctoral fellow – one of four nationally – in the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship Program. The award will allow her to conduct one of the first managed relocation experiments. In managed relocation, a plant population is moved to a higher altitude or latitude to track its native climate. If this tactic works, it could be a way to save plant populations from extinction from human-caused climate change.

“I am extremely honored to receive this award,” Souther said. “This fellowship provides a unique opportunity to participate in professional development training and foster connections with individuals in the conservation community.”

The fellowship is also giving her a chance to collaborate in solving a timely problem.

Very little is known regarding how well managed relocation works, and few guidelines currently exist for performing such a measure. Souther will examine how the genetic background of a population affects the success of managed relocation, using American ginseng as a model species.

With the rapid pace of climate change, there is an urgent need to find out more about this type of conservation effort before species are lost for good, Souther said.

Ultimately, Souther would like to collaborate with other scientists conducting research in this area to produce guidelines for performing managed relocation. She also plans to use this research as an opportunity to educate the public on climate change-related issues and to develop climate-integrated management policies for species like American ginseng.

“I am excited to engage in the programs offered through the fellowship, to begin the proposed research, and to contribute to the field of conservation biology,” Souther said.

The award speaks to Souther’s accomplishments and her training at WVU under her mentor WVU biology professor James McGraw.

“This fellowship is the most prestigious postdoctoral research award in the field of conservation biology in the country,” McGraw said.

Souther said that McGraw provided her with wonderful scientific and professional training. He allowed her the freedom to pursue her research interests, while always providing her with encouragement and support.

“During my time here, Dr. McGraw was the recipient of three National Science Foundation grants, including a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant that we co-authored,” Souther said.

“The biology department and the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences consistently provided financial support for summer research and travel to national and international conferences.”

For her postdoctoral research, Souther will join the lab of Dr. Don Waller, University of Wisconsin, Madison. There, she will receive further mentoring from both Waller and a team of conservation biologists who will ensure that her research has maximum impact.

Souther received her bachelor’s degrees from the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences in 2003 as a double major in biology and sociology and anthropology. She then served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay with her husband, John Souther, before joining McGraw’s laboratory in 2006 as a doctoral student. She has served as the Conservation Fellow on a National Science Foundation funded project in McGraw’s lab since 2006.

The David H. Smith Fellowship is awarded to early career scientists working in the area of applied conservation biology. It provides a two-year annual salary of $50,000, research funds of more than $32,000 and a travel budget of $8,000.

Additionally, the program provides professional development workshops and training events. Recipients of the Smith Fellowship also receive a lifetime membership in the Society for Conservation Biology, which includes subscriptions to “Conservation Biology,” “Conservation Letters,” and “Conservation Magazine.”

For more details about the fellowship, see:



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