Portrait of

Plants in a changing climate

Dr. Sean Michaletz, an assistant professor in the UBC Department of Botany, talks about his research on how plant functioning changes in a warming climate.

Hi! My name is Dr. Sean Michaletz and  I'm an assistant professor of ecology in the Biodiversity Research Centre  at the University of British Columbia. One of the big projects in my lab is focused on understanding drivers of variation in plant functioning across the world, and we're especially interested in how plant functioning is going to change with climate change. And so the way that we approach this question is we've actually distributed a network of field sites across climate gradients. These actually span latitude in the Americas.

Our southernmost site is in Barro Colorado Island, which is an island in the Panama Canal in Panama, and our northernmost site is actually here in the Capilano Watershed which is just north of Vancouver. We have sites that are basically representative of the variation in climate across the world where plants grow. At these sites, we have plots established where we tag all of the individuals and we measure their size, we identify them to species, and then we revisit every year and are able to keep track of births and deaths of plants, how fast they grow and over time then we have this long-term data set of forest dynamics, diversity, and demographics.

How did you choose to study biology?

I didn't have a lot of guidance from my parents as to how to become a researcher, but I went to a high school where I was fortunate to have a biology teacher who had a PhD. I took her course Environmental Science which I was able to get college credit for and I just loved it. What I really found interesting about that course was the union of physical science and life science. I then decided I wanted to study biology in university and I entered a pre-medicine program and quickly realized that I really liked research more than medicine. I got a job working for a professor at the University of Minnesota in the field and continued working in that professor's lab throughout my undergraduate degree.

Why do you study plants?

Well, there's there's a couple of reasons that I study plants. One is that they constitute most of the biomass on earth, and so they're massively important, you know, biologically. They're also important because they capture all of the energy from the sun via photosynthesis and they store that energy as chemical energy in their biomass which basically provides the food and the energy source for all living things on earth. Another reason I study plants is that they're relatively easy to study - you don't have to chase them, you can cut pieces off of them and it doesn't really harm the plant. There are no ethical concerns with working on plants. The diversity of form and function that we see in plants is just amazing.


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