Researching AUM: Vanessa Koelling’s 'growing' research

Dr. Vanessa Koelling surrounded by azaleas and, in background, a holly on the AUM campus. 

Fifty years ago this month, the first classes were held at Auburn University at Montgomery. While the landscaping surrounding the East Montgomery campus buildings was rather sparse in those early days, today the 500-acre campus boasts a verdant display of flora.

“AUM has a lot of beautiful trees on campus, particularly some lovely native oaks, and a beautiful wooded area with many native plants,” said Dr. Vanessa Koelling, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Environmental Science. “That’s one reason the university was recently awarded recognition as a ‘Tree Campus’ by the Arbor Day Foundation.”

Koelling knows a thing or two about botany. As an evolutionary biologist who studies how plants adapt to their environments, she has traveled the country pursuing her love of nature.

“I have done research on weedy plants in an old field at the Kellogg Biological Station in Michigan; on wildflowers in cedar glades in Alabama’s Moulton Valley; on wildflowers in the Sierra Nevadas, Cascades, and Coast Range mountains; and now in the hills and mountains of east-central Alabama,” said Koelling.

She was recently awarded a grant from the American Rhododendron Society during her first year on the Auburn Montgomery faculty to study Alabama’s azaleas.

“I’m particularly interested in the evolution of plant reproductive systems, which are incredibly diverse, and the mechanisms by which new plant species form,” explained Koelling. “The more we know about evolutionary processes, the better we will be at predicting the impact of environmental change on species – such as the current rapid environmental changes brought about by human activities.”

The grant, with collaborators at the Auburn University Davis Arboretum and the Holden Arboretum in Ohio, will investigate two of Alabama’s native azalea species and include AUM undergraduate research students.

“We are investigating physiological differences that may give these species different climate tolerances,” said Koelling, who’s planning to analyze the DNA of the species to identify genetic differences which could explain their climate tolerance traits.

“Our long-term goal is to understand how adaptation to climate has shaped the evolution of Alabama’s azaleas and how current climate change may impact azalea populations,” said Koelling, who is also completing another project involving wildflowers.

“It’s one of the largest studies of inbreeding ever done in a wild plant species,” she said. “The common yellow monkeyflower is a beautiful wildflower widespread in the Western United States. I’m studying inbreeding in this species and how it impacts populations over time.”

Koelling first developed an interest in nature on camping trips with her parents. “They were outdoorsy and liked to learn about natural history and identify plants and animals,” she recalled.

And today, as a plant expert, she says people will ask for gardening tips.

“There are so many stunning native plants in the South, such as Alabama’s native azaleas, that it just doesn’t make sense not to plant them,” she says. “Many non-native plants have also turned out to be invasive when they escape yards and are very disruptive to local ecosystems. I’m not a master gardener by any means, but my advice for folks gardening in the South is to go native!”

As AUM heads into its second half-century of teaching and research, going native is something Koelling is actively encouraging. With fellow biologist Shelly Taliaferro and student volunteers, a new campus native plant garden is thriving.

“One of my long-term research goals is to get our students out into our campus woods to study native species and to work on restoring the unique ecology of Alabama woodlands,” says Koelling. “Our campus has great botanical potential!”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 750 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.com).