Biology professor awarded $346,900 National Science Foundation grant

As Meriwether Lewis and William Clark journeyed west in 1806, they marveled at prairie meadows ablaze with blue spring flowers. Lewis wrote that the dazzling color of the camas lily “resembles lakes of fine clear water.”

Though these spring flowers are valuable components of diverse habitats and indigenous cultures, biology professor Susan Kephart and her students found that few biologists have studied them.

Thanks to a four-year, $346,900 grant from the National Science Foundation, Kephart will add to the scientific understanding of diversity among camas lilies. She is the lead scientist in a team that includes Willamette’s first postdoctoral scholar, Kathryn Theiss ’03, and students and professors from Kansas and Ohio.

“We need a fast, efficient and effective way of describing and characterizing difficult plant groups, particularly those that include both rare and common plants like camas species,” Kephart says. “One challenge is that some members of the genus Camassia are rapidly evolving, with potentially new, under-described species out there.”

Kephart’s project will provide a glimpse into how new species evolve. She plans to explore factors that contribute to rarity in plants in nature, using camas lilies as a case study. Willamette students have generated preliminary data during classes, and they will continue to contribute through summer research positions.

The research is discovery driven, using multiple types of evidence to test hypotheses. Students will devise study protocols for the piece of the project that most interests them, gaining valuable research and publication experience in the process.

Adding to the understanding of camas species has both ecological and cultural value, Kephart says. Records of the timing of spring blooms and insect visits can help scientists understand the effects of climate change on plant-pollinator interactions. The camas also has historical significance for indigenous peoples, as part of marriage ceremonies, trade and food customs, she says.

The collaborative grant totals $857,000 across three institutions, and was awarded through the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology and the Research in Undergraduate Institutions Program.