In 2009, EvoEco Lab began as a small lab located at North Carolina State University that consisted of only a technician, two graduate students, a post-doc, and some undergraduate students. This month, the evolutionary ecology lab, which moved to UTM in 2011, is celebrating their ten-year anniversary with a much larger research team. As of January 1, 2019, 15 people work within the lab ranging from undergraduate students to two visiting professors. This week, The Medium spoke with Marc Johnson, the Director of U of T’s Centre for Urban Environments, Canadian Research Chair for Urban Environmental Science, and associate professor in the department of biology at UTM, about his work with the EvoEco Lab and their accomplishments over the past ten years.
According to Johnson in an email to The Medium, the lab conducts research on evolutionary ecology, which means that the team tries to understand “how ecology drives evolution, and in turn how evolution can [provide] feedback to affect the ecology of populations, communities, and entire ecosystems.”
The research team strives to use their work to answer questions such as “Why do organisms have sex?”, “How do plants evolve defenses against parasites like herbivores and fungal pathogens?”, “Does coevolution between hosts and parasites and between mutualists drive the diversification of traits and species?”, and “Can organisms adapt to urban environments?”
For Johnson, nature has always been an interest for him since his childhood. “From a young age, all I wanted to be was a naturalist, studying frogs in ponds, birds in trees and plants in forests and fields,” Johnson says. “Through time that interest developed, working first as a Park Naturalist in Algonquin, then as a field assistant for researchers in Venezuela, the Appalachian Mountains, the Canadian Artic, and Ontario, and then later a grad student at U of T, Post-doc at Duke University and now a Professor. For a nature lover, being a Professor that does research and shares that knowledge with students and the public is one of the greatest privileges and the best jobs in the world.”
Over the past ten years, the lab has achieved a long list of accomplishments. Along with publishing 81 papers, the EvoEco lab is “among the leading labs in the world studying evolutionary ecology.” Johnson explains that their work “on evolution in urban environments, the adaptation of plants to their herbivores (including crop species), and the ecological consequences of evolution has helped create or alter multiple paradigms in the field.” In addition to this, the research conducted by the team has also had “applied application in agriculture, conservation and pest migration,” Johnson notes.
But aside from these successes, Johnson believes that the EvoEco lab’s greatest accomplishment over the past decade involves the people that have been trained by the lab.
“Over 50 undergrads, 7 visiting grad students, 15 M.Sc. and Ph.D. students, 7 post-docs and 7 technicians have been trained over the past 10 years,” Johnson says. “Most of these individuals have gone onto careers in science, including as professors, educators, environmental consultants, as well as biotech researchers, and the medical field.”
When asked about the most memorable moments from the past ten years, Johnson again points to the successes of the individuals within the research team. “Whenever a M.Sc. or Ph.D. student successfully defends their thesis, that’s a pretty great day. Seeing students accomplish their goals, such as giving their first talk, publishing their first paper, getting a fellowship or a job, those are great memories.”
After ten years of work in the EvoEco lab, Johnson credits two things for continuing to inspire and motivate him. “I am passionate about biology and understanding how the natural world works. Why do we see the species we do in nature, and why do those species exhibit particular behaviors, physiology, abundance and interactions? And how do humans alter this biology? These are exciting and important questions. Second, the opportunity to help bright young students become great scientists is among my greatest joys in life,” Johnson says.
In terms of where Johnson hopes to take the lab from here, he would “love to understand how humans alter the ecology and evolution of life on our planet, from evolution in cities, to adaptation to climate change, to the process of domestication. These problems have important implications for fundamental biology and its application to human society.”
To celebrate this ten-year milestone, Johnson hopes to plan a weekend trip to Algonquin Park where he and his team can enjoy good food, nature, and simply, each other’s company.