Comita Receives NSF CAREER Award for Research on Diversity of Tropical Forests

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

Liza Comita, an assistant professor of tropical forest ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), has received a prestigious award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will support her research into the factors that shape the rich and persistent biological diversity in the world’s tropical forests.
Comita will receive $620,000 through the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program, which supports the research of early-career faculty.
liza comita yale forestry Liza Comita transplants seedlings in a central Panama forest as part of a field experiment examining the effects of drought on tropical tree seedlings.
During the five-year study, she will investigate how environmental variables (such as light and water availability) and biological variables (such as density and identity of neighboring plants) influence patterns of tree seedling survival and ultimately help maintain high levels of diversity in tropical forests.
Comita expects the project will ultimately provide insights into how plant diversity is maintained, but also help scientists better predict the future composition and diversity of tropical forests in the face of numerous threats, including changes in precipitation as a result of climate change.
“This integration of field data and new forest simulation models will significantly advance our understanding of the mechanisms that shape tropical tree communities and will provide a framework for predicting changes in tropical forest diversity and species composition in response to shifts in climate,” she said.
The National Science Foundation’s CAREER program offers awards that support early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. The program targets activities that “build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.”
For Comita, who arrived at Yale in 2014, the experience of studying the incredible diversity of the forests of Costa Rica as an undergraduate made her want to better understand how that diversity happens — and how it is maintained.
For more than a decade she has been trying to do just that.
Tropical forests, she says, contain the highest levels of plant diversity on the planet, with hundreds of tree species coexisting together in a single community. Understanding how such high levels of diversity persist without a handful of competitively superior species taking over is a long-standing question in the field of ecology, and is of critical importance if humankind is able to conserve and manage these systems and valuable services they provide, such as carbon storage, water regulation, and non-timber forest products.
Processes that affect the seedling stage may be particularly important for shaping the species composition and diversity of tropical tree communities, Comita says.
In addition to enabling me to expand my research into new directions, this grant will also enable me to integrate this research into my teaching.
— Liza Comita, assistant professor of tropical forest ecology, Yale F&ES
For this study, she will take advantage of a strong variability of rainfall levels in different nearby areas of Central Panama to investigate how the relative importance of different drivers of seedling growth and survival shift with changes in rainfall and dry season severity. In addition, the project will examine how species characteristics — such as wood density and leaf area — determine seedling responses to their local environment.
Data collected at field sites in Panama will be used to develop new computer models that simulate forest dynamics over multiple generations in order to assess the relative contribution of abiotic and biotic drivers of seedling performance to tree species coexistence.
The findings will also help in the development of three separate academic courses, including: 1.) an interactive, interdisciplinary lecture course on tropical forest ecology and conservation; 2.) a tropical field ecology course that provides students with hands-on research experience in an international context; and 3.) a graduate seminar focused on analysis of data collected through this project.
“In addition to enabling me to expand my research into new directions, this grant will also enable me to integrate this research into my teaching,” Comita said.
She will also contribute taped video lectures for use in the F&ES-based Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative (ELTI) online training program for current environmental decision-makers in the tropics.
Comita, who has been recognized not only for her excellence in research but also for her mentoring of women postdoctoral researchers, said that through this project she will continue to promote retention of women in science as a faculty mentor through the Women in Science at Yale program.