TransyPods: Interview with Dr. Sarah Bray and Jaylen Beatty

Brandon Trapp ’19 interviews Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Sarah Bray and Senior biology student Jaylen Beatty

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[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: Welcome to another “Campus Conversation,” discussions with Transylvania University faculty highlighting their interests, passions, and pursuits. Here is Brandon Trapp.

BRANDON TRAPP: I’m here with Professor of Biology Dr. Sarah Bray and senior biology student Jaylen Bailey. And we’re here to talk about their research in invasive plant species. So first I want to ask, what does that mean? I’m assuming it’s not plants coming down from space with laser guns taking over Earth.

SARAH BRAY: Yeah. Usually, a lot of times when I introduce my research to new groups of people, I put in really bad B-run kind of sci-fi movies like that, invasions of the whatever. So when we talk about invasive species, what we really mean is an organism that is brought to a new location where it has not previously been. Sometimes, those introductions are not a problem. And they’re just a minor component of the system.

But we call them invasive when they start to displace native members of the community. And my training is in plant and microbial ecology. And so I’m really interested in invasive plants. So in this part of the country, people are usually aware of kudzu. The vine that ate the South is probably the famous one.

Since I’ve come to Kentucky, I’ve been working on Amur honeysuckle, which is a shrub. And if you’ve driven on New Circle Road, that’s mostly what you see on New Circle Road where it’s kind of the interchange part of it. And then recently, I’ve begun working with winter creeper, which is another vine, so maybe the vine that’s going to eat the mid-Atlantic. And it can grow in pretty dark forests along the forest floor.

So I’ve been using that in my ecology class. Jaylen was in my ecology class. And that’s how we first started working together on invasive species. And he presented some of the work from that ecology class at a recent meeting that we were at. And then we’re currently doing some more work on winter creeper now.

BRANDON TRAPP: OK. So one question I have is, if you have plants that are coming in and displacing native plants, why does that matter? Because it’s not like killing a bunch of vegetation. It’s displacing plants with plants, so why is it a problem?

SARAH BRAY: Yeah. So one of the reasons is that it greatly decreases diversity. So we go from having many different– so for example, if we were just talking about an invasive plant– many different plants in the system to almost a monoculture, almost like a kind of agricultural setting. And that has repercussions throughout the food web. So that’s going to alter animals, other insects, fungi, bacteria that Jaylen and I are interested in.

And then at an even greater level, it can change things that we call ecosystem services, or ecosystem properties. So that can be things like water availability, nutrient cycling, disturbance regimes that have frequency of fire. So it can have really large-scale effects beyond just the aesthetic of a community.

BRANDON TRAPP: OK, OK. So in terms of invasive plants, how does this kind of happen? What happens to get these plants here? And then, why are they invasive? Why don’t they just die out because they’re in a new place?

JAYLEN BAILEY: Well, there’s a lot of ways in which an invasive species of any kind can get here. Typically, it’s because of human activity. Specifically with winter creeper, it was actually in the ’60s, perhaps also the ’50s, actively sold. Some people actually still sell some cultivars of Euonymus fortunei, just the [INAUDIBLE] species winter creeper is a part of.

It was sold back then as an ornamental plant. Because the thing about it is that it grows fairly quickly, and it’s an evergreen. So it’s always going to be around your yard year-round and doesn’t have a too terribly high upkeep. So it would’ve been a popular ornament, right? The thing about it, it grows very quickly. And it doesn’t die in the winter. And it doesn’t have very high upkeep. So it very easily managed to grow out of the control of people’s yards and just take over local environments.

And then as to why this actually happens, the thing about it is that where an organism lives is going to affect what it can ultimately do. But the thing about it is that some organisms are just going to be able to be successful in multiple different kinds of environments. So with winter creeper specifically, it doesn’t have complex nutritional requirements that are only specific to its original native range.

It actually came from, I want to say, mainland Asia around Mongolia, China, and then a little bit further down south as well. But the environments that it’s getting into here in the mid-Atlantic and the Southeast are fairly similar in regards to the availability of nutrients and water. And so it just happens to be able to survive here, for one.

And then secondly, the thing about any ecosystem is that you’re going to have either positive, neutral, or negative interactions with the other things that live there. Because everything needs to have some sort of resource to survive. And plants, typically speaking, will be competing for the same resources. So it’s also able to compete fairly well with the native plants.

Because the thing about a lot of vines that aren’t necessarily relegated to just growing up large trees or that tend to grow in mats along the forest floor, and so low-lying plants are going to get covered by these mats. And if you cover up a plant, you’re going to isolate it from sunlight. And plants need sunlight to conduct photosynthesis, to make sugar, to live.

And so you start– the winter creeper starts killing off its competitors, which makes more resources available for it, allowing it to continue persisting in that ecosystem. And with that as well, the thing about winter creeper and its native range versus its invasive range is that– and this is a big problem with any invader– the native species haven’t co-evolved with the invader. So for example, if you’re in Kentucky, we don’t just commonly have– I mean if you discount kudzu sort of, I guess– we don’t commonly have a lot of vines that are prevalent throughout our forests that act in the same way that winter creeper acts.

And so those low-lying plants that are getting isolated from the shade don’t necessarily have a strategy for either competing with or dealing with what winter creeper is doing to them. And so another big deal with any invader is that they can introduce novel mechanisms to persist in an environment that the native species just don’t have a way of coping with. So they can hit very early, and their impact can be great. And that just aids in their ability to remain in whatever environment they’re invading.

BRANDON TRAPP: OK.

SARAH BRAY: Yeah. I think Jaylen’s done a really nice job of highlighting some of the really big mechanisms that we’ve been trying to understand as scientists about why invasives are so good at what they do. So one is, as human beings, we tend to choose these species that are already the pretty competitive species because we want them to be something we don’t have to take care of. So they’re already going to be something that can do really well without intervention.

Secondly, they’ve not evolved with our native species. That means they could be functionally unique. And they just haven’t had the evolution– the natives haven’t had the evolutionary time to respond. And then I think the third thing, one of the other big ideas, is what’s called enemy escape, or enemy release, which is kind of– Jaylen brought up positive, negative, and neutral. That they escape those negative interactions that they had in their home range.

So that could mean a predator that would normally eat them, a disease that they would normally encounter. And we’ve just started working with winter creeper, so we don’t know a lot about those particular mechanisms with this species yet. But just our own anecdotal observations are this shading out that Jaylen talked about. It is functionally unique in our forest systems.

And the other thing I’m noticing, and I want to follow up on, is that I don’t see a lot of herbivore damage. So I don’t see a lot of animals eating winter creeper. So it may get that advantage of it’s not getting eaten. But the native species are.

JAYLEN BAILEY: And in its native range, it’s kind of not– at least based upon what research I’ve looked into in terms of what’s changed between its native range and invasive range, which hasn’t really been my focus– so I don’t know everything about it. But it seems fairly throwaway or commonplace there. It’s not having these huge ecological influences.

Or, it’s had its influence for so long that now its presence there is just normal. And whatever else is living there is just able to contend with it. And so it’s interesting to think about what factors are or were controlling it over there and what we lack here that’s allowing it to essentially take over.

BRANDON TRAPP: OK. I’m curious if there are any invasive species that you know of that aren’t of this kind of, I would say, set it and forget it kind of approach that these, specifically kudzu and winter creeper like we’ve talked about so far, have where they grow really fast. And they don’t have a lot of upkeep. Are there any other kind of invasive species that have some kind of upkeep or that don’t grow really fast but still somehow manage to become invasive?

SARAH BRAY: I think usually that’s how we differentiate between something being what we call naturalized, so that it’s not native here. And it will exist in the community. But it doesn’t just take over and plow everybody else out of the way.

BRANDON TRAPP: OK, I see.

SARAH BRAY: So winter creeper is somewhat unique as an invader when we talk about invasive plants. Because they often have the characteristics that we consider to be weedy in that they make lots of really pretty flowers and fruits, which is how they move around. Winter creeper does do that. Many invasive species tend to be very sun demanding. And so that’s the one place where winter creeper’s unique is that it can exist in deep shade. So there’s not a lot of species that kind of specialize in that kind of environment, which is one reason why winter creeper’s kind of unique.

JAYLEN BAILEY: Thinking of invaders [INAUDIBLE] upkeep, as you call it, there are– so in some cases, we have accidental invasion, like things just coming over on ships, for example, or things like winter creeper just being sold to people and getting out of hand. There are cases in which people have intentionally introduced an exotic species into an environment to fulfill some sort of function, and it can become invasive. A good example– or a good generalized example, I should say, because I don’t know all the details of where this has happened and what species were used specifically– but there have been some cases in which people have tried to control certain biological agents.

I think it might have actually been emerald ash borer somewhere in Tennessee, the one I’m thinking of right now. And so they– the thing about certain invaders is that– well, one of the big problems with that is that nothing’s trying to kill them. Nothing’s trying to eat them. What if we introduce something that wants to do that?

And so there have been cases where people have introduced what are known as parasitoid or hyperparasitoid wasps, which are types of wasps that specifically target certain insects to implant their young in them kind of alien style, in which things don’t typically end so well for the host. And so the thing about a lot of these parasitoid wasps and hyperparasitoid wasps is that they specifically target certain kinds of insects. And so there’s a high specificity.

So whenever you’re introducing a biological control agent, you want to obviously be sure that it’s not going to become an invader itself. And in some cases, just because– I would believe them if they said they didn’t know every exact biotic and abiotic mechanism that was occurring simultaneously in an environment. And so they can’t predict everything.

And so in some cases, some of those species can just kind of get out of hand. And so either they’re going to go down the winter creeper route, in which they’re going to find a way to survive in that environment. Or because– as you mentioned earlier, where they have this sort of upkeep element, they’re going to– they could potentially act as invaders. But because their requirements are so specific, they end up dying out. And that scenario is what we want happening with control agents basically.

BRANDON TRAPP: I was going to say something earlier. I was going to ask if there’s ever been a woman who swallowed the fly kind of thing going on, where she swallows a fly. And then she swallows a frog to eat the fly.

JAYLEN BAILEY: Yeah.

BRANDON TRAPP: But then there’s a frog. So then she swallows a snake to eat the frog and stuff like that.

JAYLEN BAILEY: Yeah. That’s happened over the past few decades. I think it’s kind of going out of style. Because it turns out that, one, constantly trying to figure out how a new organism is going to affect your environment isn’t the most fun research to do. And secondly, at a point, you have to ask yourself a question, that being that, if we need 24 dozen exotic species to bring this environment back to normalcy, to control an additional 24 exotic species we introduced earlier to try to fix things, when does that need to stop?

SARAH BRAY: Yeah. I think our early history of biocontrol was not so good. I think it’s getting better. And there still are some introductions. It’s usually a pretty long, protracted time before they start releasing. So Jaylen brought up emerald ash borer, which is an invasive insect that’s killing all our native ashes now. And there is a biocontrol agent that they have been releasing in hopes of controlling that.

Yeah. You look through– it’s kind of interesting, I think, when you look through history as we have intentionally or unintentionally introduced invasive agents. So if you look back to the ’50s, by the 1950s, actually before the– I’m trying to think of when it really would have– yeah, probably by the 1950s, chestnuts in this part of the country had been completely wiped out by chestnut blight, which is an invasive fungus. And then in the probably ’60s and ’70s, Dutch elms disease was introduced, which was also a pathogen that wiped out the elms.

And now we’re in the process of emerald ash borer, which was accidentally introduced in packing materials from China, is now in the process of wiping out our ashes. So as we’ve become– I think it’s an interesting thing to think about from also a liberal arts perspective is that as we’ve become a more globalized society, and we’re moving goods around, even– Jaylen and I currently are studying an intentionally introduced organism. But many of the most problematic things we’re dealing with are things that were accidentally introduced just by moving goods around the world.

BRANDON TRAPP: So I have to ask then, is there some kind of merit to saying that we should just let it go and let natural selection take its course?

SARAH BRAY: It’s interesting. There was a pretty provocative paper that came out maybe five or six years ago where someone made the argument of, it’s all going to work itself out. Let’s not worry about it. I would say most people in the academic community did not necessarily go with that idea.

But I think there is this thought of invasive species tend to be the most problematic in the most disturbed environments. So forests that have been highly modified, urban kinds of landscapes where you just have fragments of natural lands left, those tend to be the ones that are most impacted by invasive species. So I think instead of a thought of, let’s just not worry about invasives, it’s now a question of, maybe we need to fall back, pull behind our lines, and try to keep disturbance out of systems.

And in doing that, then we may be protecting them from invasive species. So are invasive species– this is another paper that has kind of come out recently, which is to say, are invasive species the driver or the passenger? And some people argue that they’re the passenger. They’re a symptom of something else going on.

BRANDON TRAPP: Is there anything that the listener can do to help with the problem?

SARAH BRAY: Absolutely. I think we can kind of think about this from several different prongs of approach. So one is in your own home, in your own yard, choose to plant native species. Native species will generally do really well because they’re adapted for these locations. They will aid in ecosystem services, bring pollinators in that you want to see, and obviously won’t contribute [INAUDIBLE] as a source of invasion.

I think the other thing is to become aware of the species that are problematic. And I think– I know when I taught this ecology class, where we focused on winter creeper for the first time, I had so many students come back later and say, Dr. Bray, I can’t believe I’ve seen winter creeper everywhere now. And so we’re just not aware.

I think even, like I said, if you drive around New Circle, almost everything that you see green– towards the end of the fall, the only thing that’s left that’s green is honeysuckle. And it’s invasive. So just becoming aware to know, oh, hey, maybe I don’t want that in my yard. I’m going to get rid of that.

And then the third thing I would say is that there are so many groups that have volunteer-based removal projects. So one of my study sites is the Arboretum at UK, the backwoods, they have actually successfully removed honeysuckle. And now they’re starting to work on winter creeper. And much of that work is done with volunteers.

Raven’s Run has been working on honeysuckle there. They’ve been working on emerald ash borer there. So I think, for listeners who are interested and want to make a difference, there are tons of opportunities. But start at home. Plant natives. Don’t buy that winter creeper from Lowe’s.

BRANDON TRAPP: Do they sell that at Lowe’s?

SARAH BRAY: I have seen it there, yes. Yeah. So I think for those of you listening that if you walk around– in fact, we have it at various places on campus. There’s some over at Graham Cottage that I’m still trying to make sure we get rid of. So it is out in your yard probably.

BRANDON TRAPP: I want to talk about research in general. Because I feel like that’s something that a lot of Transy students don’t ever really think about. And it’s not something that I personally hear a lot. So I want to first ask you, what do you look for in the student when you’re considering doing research with them?

SARAH BRAY: Yeah. I like to see just excitement and engagement, number one. I think that goes a long way. I first met Jaylen when he took my ecology class. And I was just really impressed by his ability to develop interesting questions.

So I ask students to– and that’s an upper level class. So I asked them to design experiments in that class that they’re going to test. And usually, they’re kind of under an umbrella of bigger research questions that I’m in. So we all focused on winter creeper and honeysuckle that semester.

And so, yeah, I think for me more than anything, it’s really just about someone who gets– and you can tell Jaylen gets excited about science. And so I actually have a collaboration with a professor at Indiana University. And I can send two students a year there.

And so Jaylen got to go this past year. And then we’re continuing to work together on these plant microbial interactions. And it’s been really fun to have him back because we can totally geek out together about microbial ecology.

And I think one thing that’s great about Transy is it’s a small place. You get to know your students well. You get to know other faculty well. But it can be isolating because you are the one expert of your field. So having Jaylen come back and having somebody to talk about my research with has been really fun.

BRANDON TRAPP: Do you believe that doing research, even if it’s just a small maybe two-week-long thing with a professor, should be considered a fundamental part of the liberal arts education?

SARAH BRAY: I think so. And I think that in our curriculum within the biology program, we really make that a priority, I think. And Jaylen can probably talk from the student perspective about this. But we try to build real research experiences into all of our classes. So you’re already getting that.

And then, I think for many students, that’s kind of what ignites the idea that, oh, I kind of want to follow up on that. So I would say among the biology faculty, each of us probably have somewhere between two to four students working with us over the year, whether it’s– Jaylen’s been working with me all year. I’m going to have a couple more students joining him next semester.

So he’s going to be kind of the head of the lab, and then usually some in the summer. So I think clearly from the sciences, it’s fundamental. It’s who we are.

BRANDON TRAPP: So by fundamental, do you mean fundamental like something that every student at Transylvania should be required to do, essentially?

JAYLEN BAILEY: Yes. If we’re selling a liberal arts education at Transylvania, we should be pushing– maybe not requiring, but really motivating and pushing– for every student, no matter what their major and no matter what their interest, to do some capacity of research with someone knowledgeable.

Personal answer, yes. Objective answer, probably still yes. But arguments can be made for no. Because as a requirement, definitely not. Because I think that’s one of the values of a liberal arts education, of going to a school like Transylvania versus UK, for example. That if you know you want to be a scholar of women’s/gender studies or a scholar of philosophy or a scholar of psychology, yes, there are certain general requirements that you have to fulfill.

But you can pursue that field in such a way that you can start to pull in relevant information, relevant experiences, from the different disciplines. That’s why I also study English. And there’s a lot of value in being able to learn in the sphere of natural sciences and simultaneously learn within the sphere of the humanities.

And I think introducing a research requirement– again, personally I think it would be very, very valuable. Because I mean at the end of the day, all you’re going to take away from it if you didn’t like it is that this is not something that I want to do in the future. And that, for a student, is still going to be pretty useful.

But I mean you learn– there’s actually fundamental theory that you can learn by doing research. Depending on the nature of the experiment, it can reinforce certain elements, like the importance of being disciplined, being careful, being meticulous, and things like that. And those fundamental skills can be useful in many other fields outside of research. And if it’s something you want to do, then having that experience is going to be very vital for you as you try to make that come to a reality in the future.

So pushing it, yeah. But as a requirement, the issue there is that, kind of like at a larger institution where it’s like– the way that actual research courses are taught there, from what I understand from faculty and students I’ve spoken with at larger institutions, are more formulaic in such a way that they’re still useful as a knowledge base for people who are going to be researching in that field. But there’s less that you can end up pulling out if you are like the model of a liberal arts student.

So I think one of the big values of liberal arts education are that there’s a lot of freedom that you have, while simultaneously being able to experience a lot of different things. But I can generally say that there are some– I think at the end of the day, there are some students who would have more to gain in terms of being more academically successful and successful in their careers if they could spend time that would have been dedicated to participating in this research to something more relevant to their interests. But again, I think you should probably try it.

BRANDON TRAPP: Do either of you have any just general advice based on research and stuff like that that we’ve talked about to give to students or anybody else that might be listening to this?

JAYLEN BAILEY: Be ready to fail. A lot of research– well, maybe not– I guess it’s hard to fail if you’re in the English– if you’re doing like a research on– I don’t know– interpreting a character in Paradise Lost. You have– well, I mean you have your opinions. You back it up. And even if you’re wrong, you’ve just got to be passionately wrong.

What I mean is that in a lot of– more so in the sciences where you’re setting up experiments, a lot can go wrong. And a lot will go wrong. And so ultimately, it comes down to being able to accept the fact that things aren’t going to work out as well as you want them to and being able to come away with that not only being able to get back in there and fix things, but also to be able to learn from the failures.

Because I mean you know what they say. Failure’s just another kind of success– the wrong kind. Yeah, so it’s all about perseverance.

SARAH BRAY: Yeah. I think I would agree and kind of expand a little bit on that, that I think would apply to any kind of research is that there are moments that are isolating. There are moments that are frustrating. There are moments when you kind of want to quit.

But then you make a breakthrough, and it is kind of the most amazing thing that you can experience. You support a hypothesis. Or finally, that PCR you were trying to get to work works.

And I think the same thing happens in any kind of research. You finally find that one source that’s really what you wanted and supports your argument. And so I think embrace the discovery. Embrace the challenge. In the end, it’s super rewarding.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

BRANDON TRAPP: All right. Thank you both so much.

SARAH BRAY: Thanks.

JAYLEN BAILEY: Cool. Thank you.

SPEAKER 1: You’ve been listening to another in our series, “Campus Conversations,” discussions with Transylvania University faculty.