Research Interests

Whenever I attend a scientific talk or read a paper, my question is always this: WHAT ABOUT THE FUNGI? So if you are looking to address this question in your own research, let me know!

Exploring the unknown, overlooked, and marginalized

​I investigate large questions in ecology and evolution using fungi as my study system. I am interested in drivers of patterns of diversity along environmental gradients, including latitudinal and elevational gradients, as well as moisture gradients across an alpine tundra. I am interested in the role of biotic interactions in driving these patterns of biodiversity.
Within these biotic interactions, I focus on the symbiosis continuum. 
I am fascinated by and drawn to the often overlooked, underappreciated, and yet integral critters of the world around us – lichens, fungi, slime molds. This fascination extends beyond my study organisms to ants, bryophytes, collembolans, mites, algae, tardigrades, and even to often-overlooked micronutrients such as sodium*.

* Scharnagl K, Scharnagl A, von Wettberg E (2017). Nature’s potato chip: the role of salty fungi in a changing world. On the Nature of Things, American Journal of Botany 104(5):641-644

Current Research

I am currently a sixth year PhD candidate in Alan Prather's lab in the Department of Plant Biology and the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior program at Michigan State University.


I am studying the latitudinal diversity gradient of lichens using a comparison of two methods; using herbarium collections data, and using my own field-sampled data along a latitudinal gradient in the Americas. From my own observations in the field, I have seen very high species richness and beta diversity of lichens in tropical forests versus temperate and boreal forests. However, the herbarium collections data show a peak of lichen diversity in the mid-temperate latitudes, and not in the tropics.


Could lichens be an exception to the classic latitudinal diversity gradient pattern? Or are the tropics simply undersampled/underrepresented in collections data? Stay tuned to find out!

Long Term Research

One of my ongoing projects is a collaboration with Diane Ebert-May and the Niwot Ridge LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) site, monitoring lichen and vascular plant community dynamics in 30 permanently marked plots. As of right now, this is a 40+ year dataset.

I am a proponent of long term ecological and evolutionary studies (the Beal seed viability experiment, the Lenski bacterial evolution experiment, the Grants’ study of the Galapagos finches, to name a few), with the understanding that, even if one were to establish a study in graduate school and run it into their 90’s, that would still serve as a mere blip from a geological or evolutionary perspective. If we are really to understand how the world works, we must begin to think on its scale. When I study lichens, I like to imagine living small and living slow. How would that change how I sense and react to the world?