SEES Fellows: Living with locusts: Training an ecophysiologist to incorporate bioeconomic modeling and collaborative with applied food security and ag

Project: Research project


PROJECT SUMMARY Intellectual merit: This proposal builds on my dissertation research in northeast China that demonstrated excessive livestock grazing promotes migratory locust outbreaks by lowering plant nitrogen content. Our prior research suggests that excessive grazing depletes soil nitrogen, yielding lower quality forage for livestock, an inter-temporal externality, but also stimulates locust outbreaks and increases the propensity for those outbreaks to form migratory swarms, thereby generating a spatial externality. Increases in herbivorous insect populations can also translate to elevated rangeland and crop damage and pest control costs, affecting rangeland profitability and sustainability of food production. Because of the capacity of locusts to form migratory swarms, locust damage can occur broadly through a region, leading to widespread areas with food scarcity and rising food costs. Our proposed research includes two relatively unstudied and threatened arid grassland regions: Senegal and NSW, Australia. Livestock production is an important livelihood source for rural communities in these regions and each is also home to a locust closely-related to our China study species. Prior anecdotal reports suggest locust outbreaks occur on degraded livestock pastures in these regions. We have three specific aims: 1. Develop a bioeconomic model to investigate the interactions among human behavior, insect-nutrient relations, and food security with Partner Mentor Fenichel. This effort will generate new insights into the coupled nature of the system; train me in mathematical modeling and ecological-economic analysis, thereby expanding my range of expertise; and facilitate communication of results to stakeholders. 2. Investigate how rangeland management affects Oedaleus locust outbreaks and migration through changes in macronutrients available from their food plants. 3. Work with stakeholders to devise policy to account for livestock-locust interactions and disseminate findings through aid agencies to communities affected by locusts Broader Impacts: Locust outbreaks can devastate crop production, livestock yields, and food security. We will test whether overgrazing is a primary driver of locust outbreaks and directly translate research outcomes into management and policy recommendations through our collaborations with the U.S. Agency for International Development, Senegalese Plant Protection Agency, and Australian Plague Locust Commission. We will develop a multi-media outreach program connecting K-12 students and teachers, collaborators, local community members near field sites, and other stakeholders through print material, film, and interactive online activities. This project will fund 2 undergraduates and provide at least one international exchange; these students will be recruited to enhance diversity and mentored in award-winning labs. Relevance to SEES goals: This fellowship will enable me to develop skills to connect my experimental science with societal concerns by providing training in mathematical modeling, communication of models, and direct linkages with land managers to help interpret data and tie experiments together and to people. PI Professional Development: My previous on the ground development work in West Africa motivates my ultimate goal to understand dynamic interactions among plant-herbivore systems, humans, and their environments within the applied context of improving livelihoods of rural communities. To be a driving force in resolving pest-driven food shortages, I must add to my core disciplinary strength and incorporate a crosscutting set of research tools and policy analysis. Modeling is a key aspect of modern biology and is critical for understanding linked human-ecological systems. Through guidance of my Partner Mentor Eli Fenichel, I will develop skills in modeling, including learning and employing simulation and numerical techniques in dynamic optimization, and application of capital theory to natural resources. I will also gain skills to integrate my research with applied agencies. I am committed to research with real-world impacts and this project is a logical progression in my career path which includes Peace Corps Volunteer. Finally, my career goal is to secure a faculty position where I can teach and conduct independent research and strong mentorship is fundamental for that transition. I have chosen mentors for their technical expertise and mentoring abilities. Host Mentor Jon Harrison has a proven track record of mentoring young academic professionals, as evidenced by the success of his mentees, as well as his mentor awards, and can provide essential feedback on the insect physiology underpinnings of my research. Partner mentor Eli Fenichel, an award winning early career researcher, can provide fresh insights into launching a research career and has a proven record of providing training in modeling and quantitative methods.
Effective start/end date9/1/138/31/18


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $338,921.00


food security
crop pest
plant-herbivore interaction
crop damage
human behavior
policy analysis
ecological economics
livestock farming