Indian-American professor receives Science Foundation's prestigious grant

The research of Bala Chaudhary, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Studies at DePaul University, examines soil ecological questions, with a focus on mycorrhizal fungi. In her lab in the College of Science and Health, Chaudhary compares traits of soil samples under a microscope in an effort to address a variety of different environmental challenges such as biodiversity conservation, sustainable agriculture and climate change. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)

Dr. Bala Chaudhary, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, has been awarded the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development grant — considered the NSF’s most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty, who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.

The grant worth $715,000 over five years, will help support Chaudhary and her team’s multifaceted project that combines trait-based ecology, macroecology and physical laws to study dispersal of mycorrhizal fungi.

In her lab in DePaul’s College of Science and Health, Chaudhary, who compares traits of soil fungi under a microscope in an effort to address a variety of different environmental challenges such as biodiversity conservation, sustainable agriculture and climate change, said that mycorrhizal fungi are among the most common beneficial fungi for plants, mining soil nutrients and delivering them to plants in exchange for sugars.

She explained that all plants on Earth, from farm crops to fruit trees, delicate herbs to vegetables in backyard gardens, prairie grasses and exotic flowers, need a little help from these often overlooked partners in order to survive and thrive.

However, the impact they have on plants depends on the type of fungal species present, noted Chaudhary, whose research focuses on the ecology of mycorrhizas, the common symbiotic associations between plants and fungi.

“Environmental factors and dispersal determine microbial community structure, but little is known about how microbes disperse long distances,” she said.

In an interview with India Abroad, Chaudhary said, “Receiving the NSF Career award has been the honor of a lifetime,” and noted that “as the highest recognition given to pre-tenure scientists in the U.S., it lends legitimacy to my research program and recognition of the ideas I have been developing for over a decade.”

She said, “The five years of funding will provide financial stability for graduate students and staff in my lab to conduct continent-scale research in microbial ecology.”

Chaudhary said that the NSF Career grants “are unique in that they fund teacher-scholars in both research and educational activities, a portion of which includes mentoring graduate and undergraduate students, who will then in turn mentor local high school students.”

She also said that “as an Indian-American woman, I am proud, to help increase the visibility of minorities in ecology, which has traditionally lagged far behind other sciences with respect to minority representation.”

Elaborating further on her research project, that would now be catalyzed thanks to the NSF grant, Chaudhary said, “The microbial communities that associate with plants can have large implications for agriculture, forestry and ecosystems. We know that environmental factors and dispersal determine microbial community structure, but little is known about how microbes disperse long distances.

“For nearly 100 years, the ‘everything is everywhere’ hypothesis has dominated microbial ecology, suggesting that microbial dispersal is unlimited and community assembly mechanisms are primarily deterministic,” she said. “However, certain fungi vary with respect to traits that could impact their long-distance dispersal capabilities.”

Chaudhary predicted that “coupling knowledge of traits with physical laws that govern movement could provide a powerful framework to predict dispersal, a key component of biogeography.”

Explaining her research approach, she said it would zero in on how symbiotic plant microbes will disperse at large continental scale, using data from the NSF-funded National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a system of sites across the U.S. where there is an established infrastructure that documents the exact same measurement in the exact same way — common protocol — at the exact same time.

While acknowledging that NEON is a resource, Chaudhary said it doesn’t have data on the plant symbiotic microbes that she studies so she and her team would gather soil samples from 16 core terrestrial sites in the NEON system and set up dust collectors at those sites to trap particles that have traveled long distances in the wind. 

“For three years, dust and soil samples will be collected and brought back to the lab where we’ll analyze mycorrhizal communities using DNA sequencing. We’ll have all of the NEON ecological and climatic data to use as predictor variables, to determine the best eco-climatic predictors of mycorrhizal communities,” she said.

Chaudhary said, “The other ‘cool part’ of the project, will be looking at the shape, size and physical traits of the microbes — if they are round or smooth or spiny or ornamented. We want to get an idea to try and understand not just what’s there, but if we want to predict the future, how well this organism can disperse. We’re going to measure some of their morphological traits to try and predict how far they can travel in the wind.”

Chaudhary is an alumna of the University of Chicago, from where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, and Northern Arizona University, from where she received her master’s and doctorate in biological sciences, with mycorrhizal fungi being the topic of her dissertation.

Born and raised in Fridley, Minnesota, where her parents Dr. Surendra Pal Singh Chaudhary and Raj Mohini Chaudhary, immigrated to in the 1960s, Chaudhary worked after obtaining her Ph.D, as an environmental consultant in Los Angeles designing habitat mitigation plans for endangered species and conducting research in ecological restoration. In 2016, she joined the faculty of DePaul University in 2016 and now lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.

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