Land & Environment

USU's Megan Vahsen Wins Prestigious George Mercer Award From Ecological Society of America

Megan Vahsen

Megan Vahsen is this year’s winner of the George Mercer award from the Ecological Society of America, a notable recognition for “outstanding contributions to ecology by an early-career author.” Vahsen led the team that published research on how rapid plant trait evolution can alter coastal wetland resilience to sea level rise, in Science in January 2023.

Vahsen is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Quinney College of Natural Resources and Ecology Center. The research that led to the award, completed as part of her doctoral program, calls attention to the significant yet often overlooked role of rapid evolution in shaping how ecosystems respond to global change. Examining a dominant coastal marsh sedge, the work reveals how genetically-based variation in a plant’s traits — specifically traits affecting root growth — can evolve rapidly and influence a marsh’s resilience to sea level rise.

The research team used a unique approach, growing “resurrected” plants from decades-old seeds recovered from marsh soils and employing an ecosystem modeling approach to demonstrate that genetic variation observed among the plants and rapid evolution can affect the ecosystem’s ability to store carbon and build soil elevation. In turn, these functions directly impact the wetland’s capacity to keep pace with rising sea levels, a key factor in its long-term persistence.

Bridging quantitative genetics and ecosystem modeling, the study highlights the need to consider evolutionary processes in ecological forecasting. The paper’s innovative use of historical seed samples, genetic methods and simulation models advances an understanding of the interplay between evolutionary and ecosystem-level responses to anthropogenic change.

“Megan really deserves this award. Her study may be the most rigorous to date demonstrating the ecosystem-level consequences of evolutionary processes,” said Peter Adler, director of the USU Ecology Center and Vahsen’s post-doctoral adviser. “She combined multiple research approaches in a really clever way. This is just the start — she’s going to have a big impact on science and ecosystem management.”

The George Mercer Award is given annually for an outstanding ecological research paper published within the past two years with an early-career lead author. The research team also included Michael Blum, Patrick Megonigal, Scott Emrich, James Holmquist, Brady Stiller, Kathe Todd-Brown and Jason McLachlan.

ESA was founded in 1915 and is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists.

“The Ecological Society of America is immensely proud to honor this year’s distinguished awardees,” said ESA President Shahid Naeem. “Their contributions across various domains — be it through pioneering research, outstanding service or dedicated teaching — embody the spirit of this society and the ecological community. Congratulations to all for advancing the frontiers of ecological science.”

ESA will present the 2024 awards during a ceremony at the society’s upcoming Annual Meeting, which will take place in Long Beach, California, in August.


Peter Adler
Dept. of Wildland Resources, Ecology Center
Professor, Director


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