For this University Fellow, the little things literally loom large

Submitted on April 20, 2020

By Elizabeth Labiner

Victoria Luizzi’s ecologist origin story, as she calls it, took place relatively recently. In 2015, while working on her undergraduate degree in Biology at Amherst College, Luizzi signed up for a seminar in tropical ecology. “I signed up for the class mostly because it included a two-week trip to Costa Rica before the semester started,” she confesses, explaining, “When I got on the plane to Costa Rica, I wanted -- admittedly very lukewarmly --to be a veterinarian and was planning -- lukewarmly -- on going to vet school after college.” Her experience in the jungle, however, awoke her passions and was transformative of her goals:

A tropical wet forest isn’t subtle about how interesting it is. The air is so full of overlapping sounds—howler monkeys, tinamous, vastly more insects than have yet been counted by science—it feels thick enough to grab hold of. There are plants growing on plants growing on plants, and those plants all have things living in and on them. You can’t really not think about ecology. I got emotional about how cool it was. I kept a science field notebook and a poetry field notebook because I knew something big and beautiful was happening to me. In addition to the sheer awesomeness of the tropical forests, I also had amazing professors with contagious enthusiasm. That class in general just made me aware that research was a real job that I could potentially do, so going to grad school was a no-brainer after I chose that career path.

The two notebooks are emblematic of the type of person Luizzi has always been: a holistic amalgam of the arts, humanities, and sciences. She was a member of her school band and in a number of additional musical groups, read voraciously and wrote stories of her own, and even designed and built alphorns while working toward her BA. Currently, she continues her musicianship with the Arizona Symphonic Winds, and experiments with microbes in the kitchen through cultivating sourdough starter and baking bread.

Luizzi is a recipient of the Fulbright Grant, as well. Through the grant, she spent an academic year as a researcher at Lund University in Sweden working with Dr. Magne Friberg. Her research focused on the fragrance compounds produced by flowers, generally for the purpose of attracting pollinators but also potentially to deter herbivores and pathogens. Luizzi explains, “I tested how environmental factors such as soil nutrients, water, and their interactions affected the floral scent of an alpine plant in the mustard family, alpine rockcress (Arabis alpina).” Variations in these elements can potentially alter a plant’s scent and thereby affect the interactions a plant has with pollinators and other organisms. She also tested the energy cost to the plants of producing scent: 

Plants, like all living things, use energy to carry out chemical reactions that both run their basic metabolism and create lots of fancy ‘extra’ stuff (collectively referred to as secondary metabolites), like fragrance. We tend to assume that building things like flowers, with all their colors and scents and nectar sugar, is costly, implying that if plants spend energy on those things, they don’t get to spend that energy on other functions such as growing bigger or making more seeds. However, demonstrating costs can be tricky, and it hasn’t really been done for floral scent.

When it came time to pursue her PhD, the desert and UArizona attracted Luizzi in equal measure. Alongside her advisor, Dr. Judie Bronstein, Luizzi is researching the ecology and evolution of interactions between organisms of different species, particularly interactions that are beneficial to both partners (known as mutualisms) and in interactions where one partner benefits at the expense of the other (such as herbivory or host-pathogen interactions). Luizzi also collaborates with Dr. Betsy Arnold. “None of my microbial work would be possible without her providing lab space and support,” Luizzi says. In regard to that work, she enthuses, 

I’m especially interested in what happens when more than one kind of species interaction is occurring at once. For most of the history of ecology, people have mostly studied interactions as if they’re pairwise: a plant and its pollinator, a host and its parasite, etc. But of course that’s not how they happen in nature. Each species interacts with many other species, not just one, and people have started to acknowledge and study that in the past decade or two, though there’s still much to learn. 

Luizzi’s more narrow dissertation focus is likely to be on microbial mediation of species interactions. “Basically,” she says, “in most cases, we’re used to noticing, thinking about, and studying interactions between species we can see (a hummingbird visiting a flower, a caterpillar eating a plant, etc). But the macroscopic partners in these interactions have diverse communities of microbes living in and on their bodies, and it’s becoming increasingly evident that these microbes have the potential to affect both their hosts and the interactions their hosts have with other species.” Luizzi studies the nesting strategies of leafcutter bees; these bees cut whole discs from leaves or flower petals and line their nests with them. They then lay eggs inside their nests and provision each egg with a mass of pollen and nectar. Luizzi notes that while in theory there are many problems with this strategy, it clearly works in execution. She investigates the effects of microbes that live in and on leaves that the leafcutter bee chooses, how leaf choices affect what microbes end up in the nest, and how this impacts the survival of the bees’ offspring, as well as how their decisions affect the plants they cut.

As Luizzi blazes ahead in her research, she finds reward in the thrill of discovery: 

My current plan is to continue in academia, though I’m not sure yet exactly where I want to be on the liberal arts to R1 spectrum. Having experienced both ends, I can see advantages to both. All I really want is to keep chasing the rush that comes when you discover something new about something you’re really excited about, and there’s a moment—and I will have to paraphrase Hope Jahren on this because she wrote a beautiful scene in Lab Girl about it—where you’re the only person in the world who knows it. 

For Luizzi, looking ahead also means looking back fondly on her own journey. She concludes, “If I can get even one student as pumped about ecology as my professors in undergrad did for me, I’ll be happy.”