Student Spotlight

Lauren YeagerLauren Yeager

Lauren Yeager, a doctoral student in biological sciences at FIU, became intrigued by the exploratory nature of the sciences at a very young age. She appreciates how vital it was (and continues to be) to preserve the youthful inquisitiveness of her childhood as she continues her research.

Lauren's recent groundbreaking publication explores the relationship of marine fish to their habitat in the Bahamas. The article, "Effects of habitat heterogeneity at multiple spatial scales on fish community assembly," addressed coastal ecosystem habitat loss, overfishing, and other threats that affect structure and function at multiple levels of ecological organization. Considered as the "favorite part" of her doctoral research, the construction of artificial reefs in the Bahamas provided the basis for her paper, which was published in the journal Oecologia in 2011. Her work is also considered an important contribution towards greater understanding of how the large, landscape context can affect relationships among various organisms.

Lauren was awarded the UGS Provost Award for Outstanding Manuscript earlier this year and has also been awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, an FIU Presidential Fellowship, and UGS Dissertation Year Fellowship. It is a pleasure to acknowledge such an esteemed student as Lauren for this month's UGS Student Spotlight.

We encourage you to read our interview with Lauren (below) and learn why she is a prime example of what it means to be World's Ahead.

Interview with Lauren Yeager

Which recent projects have you been working on at the university level?
In general, I am interested in how landscape context (habitat pattern and configuration at large spatial scales) affects numerous ecological processes in coastal marine ecosystems. Coastal ecosystems may be the most anthropogenically-disturbed environments on the planet. Habitat loss, overfishing, nutrient loading, and many other impacts have fundamentally changed the structure and function of these systems. Many of these impacts operate over rather large spatial scales (e.g., global warming or the loss of migratory fishes); however, most marine ecology actually is conducted at the smallest scales. Ecologists are now challenged to develop approaches that better fit the large scales at which human impacts are altering coastal ecosystems.

One major direction of my PhD research has focused on using more experimental approaches to link landscape context and ecological processes. Most studies using landscape ecology approaches are descriptive as a result of logistical constraints. However, there is a need to experimentally test the importance of the effects of landscape context on ecological patterns. My work involves the creation of artificial reefs in various landscape contexts to mechanistically link landscape patterns to reef community assembly in Abaco, Bahamas. Because many reef organisms make daily foraging migrations into surrounding seagrass and soft bottom habitat to feed, the landscape context of a reef should be particularly important for these species. I am examining how landscape context controls the distributions of key species (white grunts, French grunts, spiny lobster) and subsequent effects on growth, density dependence, and niche partitioning.

Another core focus of my PhD research is examining how fish predators may make foraging trade-offs across a landscape gradient. Habitat generalists are faced with varying biotic and abiotic conditions across their landscape. Because they maintain such a wide distribution, these generalists may encounter varying prey quality and quantity throughout their range. Optimal foraging models predict that predators should select prey for which energy lost during search and pursuit is compensated for through the energy content of the food. One component of my research examines how a generalist predator (gray snapper) undergoes foraging trade-offs across its landscape and the effects of such a trade-off on fitness. This research is focused in the Loxahatchee River and its estuary in Florida.

Which of these projects is your favorite? Why?
My favorite part of my PhD research is working with the artificial reefs. For this work, I am often snorkeling on the reefs and making detailed observations of the fish community and behaviors of select fishes. Being able to witness how the fish community on the reefs changes over time and the interactions between different species is really fascinating, and fun!

What do you love MOST about your field?
I love so many aspects of science, but my favorite part is the exploratory nature of it. As scientists, we are constantly asking new questions and then coming up with novel ways to answer those questions. It is as if you get to be an inquisitive child your whole life.

What do you eventually want to do with your degree? What's your next step after graduation?
Ultimately, I hope to find a tenure-track faculty position at a research university. I really enjoy how multi-faceted academia is, as it combines teaching, research and continuous learning. Currently, I am exploring different options for a post-doctoral research position at a couple of different universities.

How have FIU & the University Graduate School faculty helped you achieve your goals?
The FIU and the University Graduate School faculty members have helped me in numerous ways by providing intellectual, logistical, and financial support. I have received constant guidance and encouragement from not only my advisor, Dr. Craig Layman, but many other faculty members in the Biological Sciences Department as well. The UGS faculty and staff have been instrumental in helping organize my NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and showed their support of my research by recognizing one of my recent publications with a UGS Provost Award. Furthermore, UGS has provided me with funding through a Presidential Fellowship and now a Dissertation Year Fellowship, allowing me to focus my efforts on research full-time.


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