Professor to receive grant for biodiversity research

by Paul Sand

University Plant Biologist George Weiblen has been selected to receive a Packard Foundation Fellowship grant for his research on biodiversity in tropical rain forests.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be awarded an opportunity to pursue my research at this level,” Weiblen said. “It’s a real boost to my research program.”

Weiblen, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences plant biology department, will get $625,000 from the grant during the next five years for continued research in the ecology and evolution of plant-insect interactions.

“We’re thrilled,” said Kathryn VandenBosch, head of plant biology.

Since 1995, Weiblen has collaborated in Papua New Guinea with researchers from the Smithsonian Institute and the Czech Republic to study the interaction between plants and insects. The group also revised the worldwide number of arthropod species, including insects, crustaceans and arachnids from 31 million to six million.

VandenBosch said Weiblen does an excellent job of making his research accessible and understandable to those outside academia.

“Many assume that this is something we have a handle on,” he said. “But (these numbers in) many communities like tropical rain forests and coral reefs are poorly known.”

The group’s study was published in an April issue of the science journal Nature.

Weiblen cited Harvard biologist Dr. E.O. Wilson’s prediction that as humans continue to modify the environment, nearly half of the world’s species could be extinct in 50 years.

“How can we know how many species we’re going to love, if we don’t know how many species we have?” Weiblen said.

He also said a baseline is needed to make effective decisions and stimulate conversation concerning environmental issues.

“Our own species is having the most dramatic impact of the shape of life on earth, and we need to be concerned with the impacts we’re having on the diversity on life on earth,” Weiblen said.

The Los Altos, Calif.,-based Packard Foundation provides grants to nonprofit organizations in the following program areas: conservation, population, science, children, families, communities, arts, and organizational effectiveness and philanthropy.

In 2001 the foundation awarded 117 grants totaling more than $74 million.