Rachel Damiani

 Rachel Damiani
Mentor: Dr. Todd Palmer
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
 
"I enjoy scientific research because it provides an outlet for me to ask questions about the world around me. Throughout my experience working in ecology labs, I have had the support of wonderful professors and the latitude to seek answers. I applied to the University Scholars Program because it facilitates undergraduate research and fosters creativity, independence, and a support system between faculty and students. By participating in this program, I hope to develop my scientific writing skills, learn more about the research process, and finally master stick shift driving on the savannah in Kenya."
 

Major

Biology

Minor

English; Classics

Research Interests

  • Species Interactions
  • Ant-Plant Mutualisms
  • Macroecology

Academic Awards

  • UF University Scholars Program
  • HHMI Science for Life Extramural Award
  • HHMI Science for Life Intramural Award
  • Goldwater Honorable Mention
  • CASE

Organizations

  • Science for Life Program Ambassador
  • Office of Sustainability
  • Golden Key

Volunteer

  • Shands Arts in Medicine
  • Jacksonville Public Education Fund, ONE x ONE Campaign
  • Organic Farms in Gainesville

Hobbies and Interests

  • Reading and Writing
  • Traveling
  • Outdoors
  • Family and Friends
  • Yoga

Research Description

Examining Plant Defense Allocation in Acacia Drepanolobium
For the past two summers, I have worked in the Palmer Lab on an acacia ant-plant mutualism in Laikipia, Kenya (0° 17’N, 37°52’ E). Our study site is on the black cotton soil where Acacia drepanolobium trees dominate 95% of woody cover. A. drepanolobium utilizes both direct and indirect plant defenses. Direct plant defenses reduce plant quality for herbivores, while indirect plant defenses facilitate the persistence of herbivore enemies. A. drepanolobium produces stipular thorns on its branches as direct defenses from herbivores. In addition, these trees invest in indirect defenses by providing ant occupants nectar and domatia. Ant occupants (Crematogaster sjostedti, Crematogaster mimosae, Crematogaster nigricpes and Tetraponera penzigi) deter herbivores from feeding on the trees, thereby facilitating the persistence of A. drepanolobium. Despite the significance of plant defenses, many details remain unknown about tradeoffs between indirect and direct defenses in plants. Moreover, little is known about the effects of dynamic ecological conditions on plant defense strategies. In my study, I am examining tradeoffs in indirect and direct plant defenses in A. drepanolobium trees in Laikipia, Kenya following the re-introduction of herbivory. My experimental trees are in the Kenya Long-term Exclosure Experiment (KLEE), where large herbivores have been excluded for the past decade. I am interested in evaluating shifts in plant defense allocation under increased nutrients levels and simulated herbivory.