UIC biologist receives award to fund invasive plant research

A woman with dark hair in a black shirt and pink blazer sitting in front of a green wall.
Gabriela Nunez-Mir, assistant professor of biological sciences at UIC. (Photo: Gabriela Nunez-Mir)

Invasive plants can dramatically disrupt ecological systems and society. In a new project, University of Illinois Chicago researcher Gabriela Nunez-Mir will use advanced data techniques to identify prospective invaders in Chicago and the rest of the United States and create a “most wanted” watchlist of invasive plants. 

Nunez-Mir, an assistant professor of biological sciences at UIC, recently received the Walder Foundation’s Biota Award. The award provides $300,000 over three years to early-career researchers who seek to restore, protect and conserve biodiversity in the Chicago region and around the world.  

The award will fund Nunez-Mir’s investigations of the traits that prime non-native plant species for invasion, allowing them to out-compete local species and harm agriculture, animal habitats and human health. Scientists estimate that invasive species cause over $25 billion in economic damage every year. 

In her work, Nunez-Mir aims to predict future invasive plant species using data about their biological features. Plants that can survive in a broad range of climates or elevations, reproduce often or spread their seeds over a large area are more likely to establish themselves in new regions after their introduction. Other traits, such as the size of seeds and dispersal mechanisms, can serve as proxies for these abilities. 

But data on these traits for the hundreds of non-native plant species in the U.S. is spread out across many sources, such as science journals or publications from botanic gardens and arboretums. Nunez-Mir and her team are building a comprehensive database of these features that can be shared with research and management communities and used to create predictive models of plant invasiveness.  

“Our approach is to step back and look at these patterns and these processes at very large scales with lots of species,” Nunez-Mir said. “It’s what we call macroecology.” 

With these data and models, Nunez-Mir plans to create watchlists of the most threatening invaders for various regions, including Chicago. These lists can be shared with natural resource organizations and distributed to practitioners who watch for threatening plants and eradicate them. 

“That is the most exciting part because it’s where we tie the knowledge and the science to the policy and to what happens on the ground in conservation,” Nunez-Mir said. “It’s nice to see the data corroborated with boots on the ground.” 

The Biota Award also will be used to create community and educational outreach programs around invasive plant species. In a partnership with A Very Serious Gallery, artists will paint murals featuring invasive plants around Chicago, with QR codes to provide information about each species. Children will be encouraged to capture the murals and participate in a workshop to learn more about the work. 

“We want to spark that interest in children and make them feel a sense of stewardship towards their own environments, their own home,” Nunez-Mir said. “They have a part to play in this effort, and by bringing these positive hands-on experiences, it becomes more memorable than a class or a lecture.” 

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