Graduate Research, Student Field Research

MS in ENVS student, Kelly Coles, breaks new ground studying Schwalbea americana

Story and photos by Kelly Coles 23G/Adapted for web by Easton Lane 25C

Kelly Coles, Schwalbea hunter

Despite Kelly Coles’ fascination with nature’s intricacies, her academic interests weren’t always in the environmental arena; having graduated the University of West Georgia with a Masters in Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology, she first became a preschool teacher. Combining her love of nature with her job, Coles integrated nature into her curriculum and saw its profound benefits, which inspired her to engage with nature more than she ever had before. Inspired by her students’ love for nature, Coles “wanted to help that love, those empowered wild feelings, to grow. So, I had to learn and grow too.”

All paths lead back to the environment, and Kelly Coles’ story is a perfect example of that fact. As a Master’s student in Environmental Sciences at Emory University, she is currently a Graduate Assistant with the Environmental Science Department co-advised by Professor Lance Gunderson (ENVS/Emory) and Dr. Emily Coffey (ATL Botanical Gardens). Kelly is immersing herself in research that will shape how we understand the United States coastal plain and how conservation will look as the climate crisis intensifies. It wasn’t until she was 11 years old that she discovered her love for nature, when as soon as she donned a pair of glasses, her entire worldview changed. According to Coles, “The first thing I noticed was that the leaves in the trees were visible. My whole life up to that point I had experienced the canopies of trees as vague green blurs. Now, I could see individual leaves!”

This growth kickstarted a 6-year journey through non-profit work for ecological restoration with organizations such as Trees Atlanta, Woodlands Garden of Decatur, and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, all of which led to the Jones Center at Ichauway in Newton, GA. Containing nearly 30,000 acres of Longleaf natural habitats, Ichauway offers abundant opportunities for graduate researchers to conduct important studies that help shape approaches to conservation in Georgia and beyond. While working as part of a project to protect Ichauway’s Longleaf from the rapidly changing climate, Coles stumbled onto a niche interest in the American chaffseed plant, known scientifically as Schwalbea americana—and this interest would pay dividends years later. 

In the spring of 2021, the Department of Environmental Sciences partnered with the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and the Jones Center at Ichauway to jointly support a graduate research assistantship. The goal of the assistantship was to provide an educational opportunity in plant ecology and conservation, with an immersive field experience, focused on applied research of the federally endangered species American chaffseed.

Coles caught wind of this assistantship through a perfectly timed email, and in her words, “The rest is history!”

Initially, Coles was interested in the limiting factors of Schwalbea americana throughout the Southeast and Northeast; at Emory, her research focus shifted to microsite and possible fungal relationships in an effort to shine a light on the mystery surrounding the endangered plant. One of the most important developments from Coles’ recent research is that fungal DNA has been found in the roots of Schwalbea americana, indicating at the very least a kind of natural relationship involving the fungi. Coles’ further research involves Maxent, a Maximum Entropy Model that allows her to learn more about the patterns in Schwalbea americana vegetation.

According to Coles, she is “using a Maximum Entropy Model called Maxent that takes known locations of Schwalbea along with environmental datasets such as average temperature during the driest quarter, average precipitation during the warmest quarter, or canopy cover, to learn more about the habitats Schwalbea grows in. The model takes the environmental data from the known presence localities and compares them to pseudo-absences, or background points where Schwalbea is not recorded to occur. I chose this modeling technique because we have few true absence points for Schwalbea, or true surveyed areas where Schwalbea was documented to not occur.”

Having supervised Coles’ work throughout the graduate assistantship, Dr. Gunderson noted that “Kelly’s academics, personality and her work ethic all combined for her to be the perfect graduate student in this assistantship. She has both benefited from and built a strong collaboration among the [ENVS] Department, the Jones Center and the Atlanta Botanical Garden.”

As she moves forward, Coles aims to join a conservation organization interested in using multi-faceted approaches to protect plants, and she hopes to further investigate the possibility of conserving plants and fungi simultaneously. Throughout her experiences, Coles has also been intrigued by the power of art forms like creative writing to convey scientific findings in new ways to new audiences. She notes that “plants, and their fungal affiliates, are foundational for all of life, and they, just as much as we do as humans, deserve a chance to thrive on this planet,” and through the collaboration between Emory University, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and the Jones Center at Ichauway, Coles has been able to fight for the nature she fell in love with, working to preserve essential ecosystems in the face of climate change.

Enjoy some Zen – all photos and captions by Kelly Coles: