Graduate Student Wins Fellowship for Orchid Study

<p>Kathryn Theiss, a Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology, with an orchid in Madagascar. Photo supplied by Kathryn Theiss</p>
Kathryn Theiss, a Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology, with an orchid in Madagascar. Photo supplied by Kathryn Theiss

A doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, Kathryn Theiss, is one of 20 environmental scholars chosen as 2009 Switzer Environmental Fellows.

Theiss has spent years monitoring the decline of two rare orchid species in Madagascar and analyzing the threats to their habitat.

The Switzer award, a prestigious national fellowship, will enable her to return to Madagascar and continue her field studies.

The awards are given to young environmental leaders at universities in New England or California. They include a $15,000 award, which Theiss will use to continue her research on native orchids in Madagascar.

Her work includes field studies on two species of endangered orchids, building a demographic matrix to track them and measure their growth, and lab work to analyze them genetically and determine their levels of genetic diversity.

She also surveys orchid sellers in Madagascar to learn about economic incentives for collecting and selling threatened orchids.

Theiss is a northern California native who graduated from Willamette University in Oregon with a double major in French and biology. Before coming to UConn, she was a research intern for two years at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

There she became interested in long-term demographic studies and in monitoring rare plants, including threatened orchids. One of her colleagues there had been a graduate student at UConn, working with Kent Holsinger, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who now advises Theiss.

She says she has found people in the department very supportive of her work. Some have had experience working on plants around the world, including Madagascar, where she had studied abroad while an undergraduate.

Since coming to UConn, she has won a three-year Furniss Fellowship from the American Orchid Society and a summer research award from the University’s Center for Environmental Science and Engineering.

She has been to Madagascar six times, where she is monitoring several populations of orchids, working with colleagues from the University of Antananarivo and with national park guides.

One of the orchids she studies, Erasanthe henrici, was named by Kew Research Gardens as one of the rarest orchids. The other rare species, Angraecum sesquipedale, known as “Darwin’s comet orchid,” is grown in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Collections Greenhouses on campus.

Erasanthe henrici grows in northern Madagascar, where its habitat is threatened by logging for export, development, and clearing, and in southern Madagascar in national parks, where it is isolated from development but also from its pollinator, a moth.

Theiss plans to use her Switzer award to return to Madagascar next spring. Her last field season there was canceled due to political unrest. Population monitoring by Malagasy colleagues has found that more of the orchids she studies are now missing, and the rate of timber harvest is heavier.

The Switzer fellowships, supported by The Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation, were first awarded in 1986 and have benefitted 450 fellows over the years.

This year’s awardees in New England besides Theiss include graduate students at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Yale, MIT, Dartmouth, Tufts, and the University of Southern Maine.