Biology professor awarded $270,769 NSF grant

UPDATE: You can read Biology Professor Marty Condon’s monograph here.

MOUNT VERNON — Cornell College Biology Professor Marty Condon has been awarded $270,769 from the National Science Foundation to continue her research uncovering extraordinary levels of tropical diversity.

The research, which was featured on the cover of Science magazine in May 2008, addresses a major biological question: Is diversification provoked by interactions among organisms or does it result from chance alone?

Condon and her students and collaborators conduct the research on flowering vines in the rainforests of Central and South America and the Caribbean. They study DNA from flies that feed on the flowers, and the parasitic wasps that kill those flies. The research has potential application to pest control programs using parasites, not insecticide, to control insects.

Condon uses an economic analogy to explain her research and why it may change the way scientists think.

Condon students in Ecuador“Economists and ecologists study the same thing: how competition structures the world. Economists talk about ‘niche markets’ and ecologists talk about ‘niches.’ Both recognize that competition occurs if two businesses (or species) occupy the same niche. Intense competition in one ‘niche market’ can lead to further specialization and finer subdivisions of ‘niches.’ That kind of specialization minimizes competition. So, biologists predict that diversity of species minimizes ‘niche overlap’ and maximizes ‘niche partitioning.’

“Our discoveries fly in the face of that idea. We find repeated instances of species with 100 percent niche overlap. That is not supposed to occur. We’re on the trail of a pattern of diversity no one has ever seen before. One thing that makes this diversity so spectacular is that these are not recent marginally different species—most of these species are more than 2 million years old.”

Cornell students are involved in all aspects of the research—fieldwork in the tropics, molecular data collection and analysis in the laboratory, and communication and dissemination of the research.  They also have the chance to train in world-class research labs at the USDA and work alongside senior scientists and graduate students at the USDA, Iowa State University (ISU) and Texas A&M.  Principal collaborators on the team are entomologists Sonja Scheffer and Matt Lewis at the USDA, Bob Wharton at Texas A&M, statistician and ecologist Dean Adams at ISU, and botanist Susan Swensen at Ithaca College.

Condon’s team has uncovered and gets to name many more species than anyone expected. “How come nobody on the planet has found these before? And we find them repeatedly?” she asks. “It’s because I can go to the tropics whenever different species are active. Cornell’s block plan lets me follow nature, not the standard academic calendar.” Because of Cornell’s One Course At A Time block calendar in which the nine months of the academic year are all separate terms, Condon can arrange her teaching to be in the tropics with students any time of the year.

“I’m here at Cornell College instead of a large research university because of One Course At A Time,” said Condon, who has conducted the tropical research for over 30 years. “I’m also here because Cornell supports ‘risky’ research that might not produce something immediately—I don’t have to produce a paper every year. Nature challenges us and dares us to be different. Cornell lets us take the dare. So, students—and the scientific community—benefit from the discoveries we make.”

PHOTO: Students of Marty Condon conducting research in Ecuador