by Alexandra DeMarco
In the West African nation of Benin, a divine partnership exists between African mahogany trees and the weaver ants that occupy their leaves. The two organisms are in a careful, mutualistic relationship where both parties thrive.
While the trees’ leaves are ideal weaving material for ants’ nests, the ants also stop other insects from feasting on the plant by eating those insects themselves.
However, ever-encroaching human activity, such as logging and harvesting, is threatening to disturb this complicated natural performance.
Orou Gaoue, associate professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee, began noticing this phenomenon and its intersection with local ecological knowledge during his research trips to Benin, where he was born and raised.
“Turns out particularly in tropical regions, humans play an important role at a small scale, medium scale, large scale through various activities — agriculture, plant harvesting for different material, … logging, fire, invasive species,” Gaoue said. “Their interference on the dynamics of native species is something that I’ve been interested in for a very long time now, because those species tend to have socioeconomic value for local people.”
Gaoue — who previously spent 10 years researching how humans affect the environment by chopping off branches to feed cattle — became interested in studying human-environment interactions and extinction through an ethnobiological lens, which combines ecology, math and anthropology to focus on the human understanding of the environment.
He channeled these research interests into a proposal for a National Science Foundation grant to fund an international research project, during which students would be empowered to study complex ecological interactions in the context of local community.
Last month, Gaoue received word that the proposal was accepted for NSF grant funding.
“It’s an idea that I like. It’s a project that I love,” Gaoue said. “It’s an opportunity that I wanted, not just to do research, but to make a difference because opportunities like this for our students to go do research overseas, to do international research is limited.”
To apply for the grant, Gaoue collaborated with UT’s Global Research Office, a branch of the Center for Global Engagement. Part of the office’s role is to support UT faculty members’ international research and proposal development, and Jamie McGowan, the director, was pleased to be supportive of Gaoue’s initiative.
“There’s few opportunities to connect students to Africa,” McGowan said. “Gaoue’s program is both valuable to advancing research around mutualistic relationships between species and to involving students in this research in a unique research setting. This grant will afford both opportunities.”
McGowan said that faculty interested in conducting international research can contact the Global Research Office if they want support in developing their international research proposals
“My office is here to help and be a facilitating office, not an obstacle in any way shape or form, and we want to help advance faculty members’ global research agendas,” McGowan said.
Research with an impact
The NSF grant program, called International Research Experience for Students, promotes two main goals working in harmony: ecological research and an internationally-based educational opportunity for students.
Every summer for the next three years, a cohort of five students will travel to Benin with Gaoue to conduct field research and data analysis about mutualistic relationships to determine how human activity is impacting pairs such as the weaver ant and the African mahogany.
Students will learn from Gaoue and three main collaborators in Africa with expertise in statistics, plant-fungi interaction and plant-insect interaction. They will also be paired with African students to form multicultural research groups.
“That is the other goal, is to offer the opportunity for students to become global citizens, who have experienced interacting with people who do not necessarily look like them, who do not necessarily talk like them, who do not necessarily have the same background — basically trying to get them to a place where they can actually be really great ambassadors for a country in the future in terms of research and other opportunities,” Gaoue said.
Each year’s cohort will be composed of different students from the previous year and will select a hypothesis to instruct research. During the first year, cohort one will study mutualism’s strength and what causes mutualistic disruption. The second cohort will test the causes of mutualistic disruption with experimentation. Finally, in the third year students will use mathematical models to measure the consequences of mutualist disruption.
The cohorts will build on the previous group’s findings and collaborate to discuss their results, Gaoue hopes, which will be informed by local knowledge.
“Local people, over centuries, basically develop an ability to understand how those ecological systems they interact with on a daily basis actually function, and from there they learn how to manage those systems or how to interact with those systems,” Gaoue said.
The trip is fully funded for all 15 students and designed to combat statistical anxiety by empowering students to gain confidence in their statistical skills. Statistical anxiety, Gaoue said, is a widely-studied problem which involves students’ common apprehension toward handling statistical problems. Often, this hesitation leads students to delay math courses until the end of college.
“The consequence of that is, instead of acquiring those skills at the beginning, which might lead to students choosing a field of expertise that involves those quantitative tools, they ended up learning at the end and missed the opportunity of actually having a diversity of fields to choose from,” Gaoue said.
Before leaving for Benin, students will spend a week learning data analysis, then a week learning teaching methods. Students will later take ownership of their understanding of data by building mathematical models in Benin and subsequently teaching students in Africa about their findings.
This peer-led, peer-learning approach is designed to help students learn better and gain confidence by sharing their knowledge. Working in groups and working outside among greenery, two elements of the IRES grant, have also been shown to reduce statistical anxiety.
At the end of each summer trip, every cohort will have the opportunity to present its findings among colleagues, mentors and the press in Africa, before returning to the U.S. to finalize papers with the hopes of publication.
International opportunity and representation
By connecting students with mentors across the world and possibly spurring ideas for future graduate research, the grant aims to provide international research and career-building opportunities for students — particularly for those underrepresented in EEB, such as Black and women students, Gaoue said.
The program will focus on recruiting students from these demographics, particularly from UT and historically Black colleges and universities in Tennessee and Kentucky.
“Particularly in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology field, minorities are really less represented,” Gaoue said. “You have limitations at entry and also promotion within … so you have fewer and fewer minorities, particularly Black students, making it through those kinds of problems, women as well. So to address that problem, I wanted to provide opportunity and encourage and aggressively recruit minority students to participate.”
Gaoue hopes UT will help promote the project’s research and recognize minority students’ achievements by intentionally highlighting students’ work.
“When it comes to diversity and inclusion, lots of effort is made in terms of statements, but in terms of practical steps, there’s always something missing, which is the deliberate promotion of minorities,” Gaoue said. “And minority scholars work, and it is an important step in promoting diversity beyond statement.”
Additionally, Gaoue hopes that with UT’s support, he will be able to expand the program’s longevity and acquire funding for students from Benin to study in the U.S.
“Clearly NSF does not support those students even though they’re part of the project and play an important role. … Basically if this could ultimately be a program that the university embraced it’s going to be exciting, having some sort of funding for students to be able to experience this,” Gaoue said.
The environmental impact
As for the ecological segment of the grant, research results will hopefully uncover answers about what level of human interaction with mutualistic organisms is permissible, considering that local people’s livelihoods depend on harvesting, Gaoue said.
“Ultimately, this research will lead to a conclusion about what harvest intensity can be tolerated that would promote the coexistence of the ants and the plants,” Gaoue said.
At the annual research symposium each summer, each student cohort’s results could spark conversation with policymakers, nature conservancy institutions and the general public about the future of humans’ interactions with the trees and ants.
Applications for the program will open in December or January. Applicants will be interviewed at the beginning of February, and the 2022 cohort of five students will be selected by Feb. 15. In the case that travel is restricted due to COVID-19, students will engage in a virtual summer research experience with researchers from Benin.