Laura Martin awarded an NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant

Laura Martin has received a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant from the NSF Science, Technology, and Society program. The grant will be supervised by Clifford Kraft and Sara Pritchard (STS), and will support Laura’s research on the relationship between ecological science and environmental management in the postwar United States.

Ecologist taking radiation readings from a crab, Bikini Atoll, 1964.

Laura Martin Invited to Join GEO Biodiversity Observation Network

DNR PhD student Laura Martin has been invited to join the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network’s terrestrial species monitoring working group. The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) was launched in 2002 in response to the widely identified need for adequate information to support environmental decision making. GEO is a voluntary partnership of 73 national governments and 46 participating organizations. It provides a framework within which these partners can coordinate their strategies and investments for Earth observation. This summer Laura will travel to Lisbon, Portugal, to work with GEO BON participants.

Laura Martin and Bernd Blossey Published in Oecologia

DNR graduate student Laura Martin and faculty Bernd Blossey recently published an article in Oecologia on how secondary compounds leached from plant litter affect larval amphibians.

Laura Martin was one of five graduate students selected to participate in a National Evolutionary Synthesis Center workshop on the evolutionary biology of the built environment. The working group brings together thirty biologists, architects, and anthropologists to develop a framework for a comprehensive understanding of the evolution of the species we most intimately interact with. It aims to better understand both how to prevent the extinction of beneficial species and to favor the evolution of lineages and species with beneficial attributes, whether those be ecological functions, health benefits or simply aesthetic value.

The article can be read at:

New Paper in Biodiversity and Conservation by Laura Martin and Bernd Blossey

This month’s Biodiversity and Conservation includes an article by DNR grad Laura Martin and Dr. Bernd Blossey in which they use economic choice experiments to model the impact of invasive plants on the desirability of lands for conservation acquisition. Read more at:

DNR grad selected for the Social Science Research Council’s Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship

Laura Martin has been selected as one of twelve graduate students to receive the Social Science Research Council’s Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship (

 Each year, the program offers dissertation proposal development under the leadership of pairs of tenured senior faculty in the US and abroad who define emerging or reinvigorated multidisciplinary research fields. These research field directors lead groups of 12 graduate students through two workshops during the fellowship cycle. The spring workshop prepares students to undertake summer preliminary research that will inform the design of more robust dissertation research in the future. The fall workshop helps students apply their summer research experiences to writing both dissertation and funding proposals. The fellowship includes summer research funding.

 Working together, research directors and graduate students design research that will help to shape evolving fields in the humanities and social sciences. Additionally, through the program’s ongoing collaboration with international research institutions, the DPDF creates a space for international as well as domestic network building among fellows.

The Co-Evolution of Insects, Plants and a Career

From Scientific American, April 16, 2012

The Co-Evolution of Insects, Plants and a Career

by Laura Jane Martin

A series of graduate student conversations with leading women biologists, at the Women in Science Symposium at Cornell April 2-3.

Insects are difficult to work with. First, they are small. While titan beetles can reach 15 cm, some parasitic wasps are smaller than a single-celled paramecium. Second, they are hard to differentiate. Even veteran entomologists refer to Microlepidopterans as “little brown moths” or “LBMs.”

Dr. May Berenbaum listed these difficulties at the start of her recent lecture at the Cornell University Frontiers in the Life Sciences symposium, an event celebrating the achievements of women biologists. But she quickly moved to the joys of working with insects and what we humans can learn from our tiny co-inhabitants.

Dr. Berenbaum’s lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign works with one little brown moth in particular, the parsnip webworm, Depressaria pastinacella, to study the co-evolution of insects and their host plants (in this case the wild parsnip, Pastinaca sativa). Their studies have revolutionized the field of plant-insect ecology, and Dr. Berenbaum’s awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship; US National Academy of Sciences membership; and for her ongoing commitment to science communication, the AAAS Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award.

At the symposium I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Berenbaum to discuss her path to entomology and success as a woman in science. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her evolutionary interests, Dr. Berenbaum highlighted the role of contingency. She wanted to be a biologist from childhood – perhaps a mammalogist or ethologist or botanist – but she had no idea she would wind up an entomologist. In fact she was afraid of insects. But in her sophomore year at Yale, the only course that fit her schedule was Terrestrial Arthropods. It so engaged her that she was unable to choose between insects and her prior interest, plants. So she chose both.

In her first semester of graduate school, Dr. Berenbaum’s advisor, a leader in plant-insect interactions, handed her a dusty book on the Umbelliferae (the parsnip family), written entirely in French, and told her “if you can find a project in this book, I can fund your research.” Fortunately, Dr. Berenbaum knew a little French, and she planned a project. Since she didn’t have a car, she decided to study a wild parsnip patch in walking distance of the lab. So began her research program.

Dr. Berenbaum explains why she was car-less in Buzzwords, a collection of her humor columns for American Entomologist. Again she emphasizes the importance of contingency in her career:

In his masterful autobiography, Naturalist, the great evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson speculated that physical limitations can determine the course of a life. In his case, a painfully close encounter with a pinfish during a childhood fishing expedition left him with a left eye that couldn’t focus at long distances; not coincidentally, he devoted his career to the study of ants and other small creatures that require magnification for close observation. I am an enthusiastic subscriber to this theory, because I know of at least one physical infirmity that I possess that has influenced the course of my own career…I’ve spent my entire research career to date working on organisms that live within walking distance of the laboratory because, since before I can remember, I’ve been exceedingly prone to motion sickness.

An ecology graduate student myself, I have similar stories about how I’ve chosen my field study systems. Like Dr. Berenbaum, in my sophomore year of college I took what turned out to be a life-changing class – Plant Taxonomy – and I choose local experiments to avoid driving. But such origin stories, while tidy, can obscure the painful moments and critical decision points of a career, the mixtures of difficulty and joy.

Dr. Berenbaum’s advice to women in the sciences is to “hang in there” and to seek out supportive friends, mentors, and campus groups committed to the retention of women scholars. She also suggests the importance of anticipating challenges, especially funding. “Funding is a constant challenge for everyone,” she says, “there’s a low probability of success, and it’s a constant source of worry, particularly when you have people depending on you.” She notes that balancing responsibilities, even when those different responsibilities are “equally pleasant alternatives,” is a constant and dynamic process: “There are always responsibilities like professional service, research, and teaching – and I will never ignore a call from my daughter.”

Too often the phrase “women in science” evokes images of Rachel Carson and Marie Curie – clearly important women, but not necessarily the faces of the new generation. And role models matter. Research suggests students may be influenced by the relative omission of women scientists in textbooks. By highlighting the contributions of contemporary women researchers, journalists can play a large role in promoting gender equality in the sciences.

Dr. Berenbaum believes good scientists and good journalists share many attributes. Both are devoted to accuracy, and both work to improve their storytelling skills. “Scientists are often uncomfortable with the idea that storytelling is key to convincing a reviewer that a paper is worth publishing, or a granting agency that research is worth funding,” she notes, “But narrative matters.”

For more on Dr. Berenbaum’s research, visit


Visiting the Corpse Plant

DNR graduate student, Laura Martin, wrote a guest post for the Scientific American on Cornell’s corpse plant.

Visiting the Corpse Plant

By Laura Jane Martin | March 21, 2012

I woke up, bleary-eyed, to news that would change my week: A corpse plant was about to bloom at Cornell University. In other words, the most amazing thing I could imagine was unfolding, literally, down the street from my house.

The corpse plant has the largest unbranched blossom in the world. Imagine a calla lily, but one that is ten feet tall, three feet wide, and smells like a rotting animal.

Amorphophallus titanum, endemic to Sumatran equatorial rainforests, is prized by botanical conservatories across the world. I first learned about the rare plant eight years ago in a dimly lit taxonomy lecture. It hooked me, and I’ve been studying plant ecology ever since.

I determined to visit this strange specimen every day until it set seed. To get a bit closer to something I thought I would never see.


It looks like a French bread sticking out of a fleshy green vase. Its Latin name is Amorphophallus titanum, or “misshapen giant phallus.” But those who don’t like to offend their audiences, like naturalist David Attenborough, or Cornell University, call the plant “Titan arum.”

The French bread is the spadix, a spike that will soon bear sets of tiny female and male flowers. The spadix is wrapped by a spathe, a modified leaf that looks like one leathery petal. When the corpse plant blooms, the spathe will unfold to reveal its frilled and shockingly purple inner side. This is the event I am impatiently waiting to see.

Next to the blooming corpse plant, in another pot, sits a single, giant leaf with a polka-dotted petiole. This is the vegetative state of the corpse plant, which only flowers every 2-3 years in natural conditions, and in greenhouses even less frequently. This leaf collects energy until the plant’s tuber has enough oomph to flower. Carol Bader, greenhouse manager, has been caring for the two Amorphophallus plants since they were delivered as small seeds ten years ago.

Monica Carvalho, graduate student and official corpse plant guardian, tells me that the plant has shot up over a foot in the past week. She expects it will bloom on Sunday.


It seems the spathe has pulled away, ever so slightly, from the spadix. But perhaps this is wishful thinking. Soon it should smell.

Amorphophallus titanum reeks when it’s blooming, and it attracts flies. Its blossom is purple with darkened orifices, and it matches the sulfurous smell and high temperature of a decomposing carcass. The high temperature (close to 100° F) may help to disperse the corpse plant’s odors across long distances – an important ability for a rare plant that can’t self-pollinate.

Such carrion mimicry has evolved in at least ten plant lineages. And rotting flesh is not the only foul smell a flower can produce: other plants mimic dung, urine, fungi, and fish. The succulent Orbea semota ssp. orientalis produces the compound p-cresol to smell of poop. Somehow the prospect of the corpse plant’s malodor is part of its appeal. Another day of waiting.


Cornell University has set up a webcam on the corpse plant. I keep it open in my browser. Ithaca is a small town, and friends’ faces appear over and over again. I am not the only one excited by the impending bloom.

The webcam heightens the suspense. I am worried that if I forget to reload the page, I will miss something. I am scheduled to visit the plant at 4 pm. The spathe is still wrapped around the spadix. It does not look like it will bloom today. But what business do I have, really, extending my intuitions about Northeastern plants to this otherworldly specimen?

It really is a big blossom. Blossoms exhibit over 1000-fold variation in size, ranging from less than 0.03 inches to nearly three feet in diameter. Giant flowers are rare, but they’ve evolved independently in multiple plant families. One might expect large flowers to be associated with large pollinators, but gigantism appears to be most common to plants pollinated by small beetles or carrion-flies.

When gigantism does evolve, it seems to do so quickly. One study suggests that the big-flowered family Rafflesiaceae is actually derived from a tiny-flowered family, Euphorbiaceae. The largest subgroup of the family, Rafflesia, which includes three foot wide blood-red flowers, experienced a rapid and recent burst of speciation within the last 1-2 million years. One species, Rafflesia arnoldii, increased its flower diameter 73-fold and now bears a 15 lb. bloom.

While many studies contend that increased floral size in species with normal-sized flowers leads to increased fitness, there are few natural history and experimental data on rare, large flowers. It does seem, though, that a disproportionate number of fly pollinated species have giant blooms. Flies are known to prefer larger carrion, which provide better sites to lay eggs, and so perhaps they prefer larger carrion mimics, too. But this corpse plant will be pollinated by graduate students, not flies.


It’s open. It opened late last night, in my sleep.

I visit the corpse plant at 9 am to beat the crowd – over 2,000 visitors so far. The bloom is always a spectacle. The first botanical account of one, in 1878, was dismissed as a fraud until a specimen bloomed at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1889. In 1926, when it flowered next, the crowds were so large that police had to control them.

The smell hits me as I walked into the room. I am surprised: it smells more like wet socks than carrion. It is a swampy smell.

Monica Carvalho is pollinating the corpse plant. I watch as the receptive and sticky female flowers are paintbrushed with pollen collected two years ago from another university’s Amorphophallus specimen. Air pumps dangle into the cup of the spathe – researchers are recording volatile emissions before, during, and after bloom.

After fifteen minutes of staring in silent reverence, I am shuffled out of the way by an old lady with a giant camera. More and more visitors are piling in to watch the pollinating. I turn around for one last look into the greenhouse. As I do a young boy, maybe eight years old, walks into the room. He looks over to his left, and shouts to his mother, “Whoaaa – a giant cactus!” And indeed, there is a beautiful cactus in the back of the room. I hadn’t noticed it. Nor had any of the other fifty adults crowded around the corpse plant. This is the nature of spectacle.


I visit the bloom again. This time without the edge of expectation. The greenhouse is less crowded. In another day or two the spathe will collapse, unceremoniously. The pollinated flowers will ripen into bright red fruits. These fruits will be shipped off to other research institutions.

On my walk home I notice that skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is in bloom. It’s of the same family as the corpse plant. An early spring bloomer, it can maintain a temperature in its spadix of around 68° F even when the ambient air temperature drops below freezing. And in fact, just like the corpse plant its pungent odor and deep red hue attract fly pollinators.

Possibly what makes the corpse plant so different from the skunk cabbage is not its size, but a more intangible ability to attract admirers – crowds of humans with notebooks, cameras, and tiny paintbrushes. I bend down to visit the skunk cabbage.


Women Life Scientists

Borrowed from the Cornell Chronicle.

Frontiers symposium to celebrate women life scientists

Laura Martin planting seedlings in a greenhouse
Laura Martin, a natural resources graduate student and a conference volunteer, plants seedlings in a greenhouse to study how plants integrate seasonal cues to flower.

Women in academic science disciplines face uphill battles, from balancing work and family to competing in male-dominated fields after attaining their doctorates.

In an effort to address such challenges and seek guidance and inspiration from successful women life scientists, more than 30 Cornell students and postdoctoral researchers have organized “Frontiers in the Life Sciences: a Symposium Celebrating Excellence.” The April 2-3 event will bring eight elite female life scientists to campus for lectures, mentoring, networking and discussions.

The visiting researchers, which include a Nobel laureate, a MacArthur fellow and National Academy of Sciences members, will give formal research presentations on the first day and attend a dinner with graduate and faculty hosts at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

Mia Park in apple orchard

Bryan Danforth
Mia Park, an entomology graduate student and symposium organizer, surveys bees pollinating apple blossoms in a New York orchard.

On the second day, they will visit host departments in their fields to lead discussions on topics related to science and gender. The day will culminate in a research poster session and reception for students and postdoctoral researchers.

“The symposium is a reminder that women can be successful in life sciences, and many of these women have families, so they have found ways to balance career and life,” said Mia Park, an entomology graduate student who helped coordinate the student volunteer organizers.

The invited scientists are behavioral ecologist Jeanne Altmann, Princeton University; chemical ecologist May Berenbaum, University of Illinois; neurobiologist Linda Buck, University of Washington; marine microbiologist Nicole Dubilier, Max Planck Institute, Bremen, Germany; human geneticist Mary-Claire King, University of Washington; plant biologist Sharon Long, Stanford University; ecologist Mary Power, University of California-Berkeley; and plant geneticist Pam Ronald, University of California-Davis.

“I am used to going to seminars and conferences where the overwhelming number of speakers are men, so it’s important for me to attend an event that celebrates excellence and addresses the gender skew found in science,” said Laura Martin, a natural resources graduate student who will conduct Q-and-As with scientists and post them online.

Retention of women in science will be a key topic at the symposium. Women account for more than half of all graduate students in the field of ecology, but fewer than 30 percent of tenured ecologists are women, Martin said.

“In life sciences, we have no problem recruiting brilliant women as grad students, but we do have a problem retaining them as tenured professors,” said Robert Raguso, lead faculty organizer of the symposium. Four other faculty and members of CU-ADVANCE were instrumental in organizing the conference.

The idea for the symposium grew from Raguso’s role as chair of the A.D. White Professors-at-Large Program. Raguso sent out an email to some 50 graduate students and faculty soliciting nominations for esteemed woman in life sciences, which “generated an amazing list,” he said.

“I recognized right away that this is something that I should not let drop. My thought was, ‘Oh, we have a symposium!'” he said. At that point, the graduate students jumped in.

Symposium participation requires registration, with deadlines as follows: March 26 for day one; registration for morning activities on the second day will be organized by host departments. Students who want to present a poster on day two need to register by March 19. Register online at

The symposium is supported by the President’s Council of Cornell Women, CU-ADVANCE, the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the Graduate School, the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research and the academic host departments, including Plant Biology, Neurobiology and Behavior, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Entomology, Psychology and Molecular Biology and Genetics.

Emerging Issues Conference

Next month, the Ecological Society of America will host its second Emerging Issues conference, “Developing Ecologically-Based Conservation Targets Under Global Change.” The conference, conceptualized by Bernd Blossey and Laura Martin of DNR and Dov Sax of Brown University, will bring together one hundred ecologists, social scientists, conservation practitioners, and graduate students to (1) identify existing and novel conservation targets that are ecologically sound in light of rapid global change, and (2) develop a framework for assessing the inherent trade-offs, risks, and benefits involved in achieving those conservation targets. The ultimate objective is to provide science-based, practical decision tools for those charged with implementing conservation strategies throughout North America and internationally.

The conference will be held on February 27-March 1, 2012, at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV. The conference organizing committee also includes Cornellians Susan Cook-Patton (EEB), Ashley Dayer (DNR), Harry Greene (EEB), and Karim-Aly Kassam (DNR).

In 2007, the ESA Governing Board announced a new conference series to provide ESA members the opportunity to organize special conferences highlighting emerging, exciting ideas in ecology with the endorsement and support of the Society. The series, originally named the Millennium Conference Series and renamed the Emerging Issues Series, is intended to address high-visibility issues of wide interest in the science community. Organizers are encouraged to work across disciplinary boundaries, to engage compelling speakers, and to produce high-quality publications.