Genes to Environment - Theme

Program Description and Theme

Recent research clearly demonstrates the broad environmental consequences of genetic variation. For example, genetic variation within plant or microbial taxa has been shown to alter the diversity of the associated community, influence rates of nutrient cycling in ecosystems, alter rates of greenhouse gas emissions and reveal cryptic invasions by exotic species. Embracing the explicit roles of genes in environmental processes acknowledges that genetically-based interactions have far-reaching consequences. Not only do solutions for many environmental problems hinge on understanding linkages between genetic information and environmental processes, but these types of data must be interpreted at multiple temporal and spatial scales. Making these linkages requires scientists whose training spans molecular genetics to ecosystem sciences to spatial and temporal modeling.

The Northern Arizona University Genes to Environment program provides students with training in all three of these areas. The faculty who are participating in this program have remarkable track records of research and mentoring success, and share an excitement for providing outstanding multidisciplinary graduate education in environmental bioscience fields. Many participating faculty have externally-funded research programs focusing on questions linking gene level research with environmental processes. These programs provide numerous opportunities for the development of dissertation projects. Students may investigate how planting of various cottonwood genotypes affects stream ecosystems, how the genetic makeup of subsurface bacteria is related to degradation of toxic contaminants, how drought and drought responses may combine to affect the distribution of key Southwestern plant species, or use molecular tools to understand movements of wildlife.

Students will develop PhD projects under the mentorship of NAU faculty from the Department of Biological Sciences and the School of Forestry. Collaborating faculty members from other departments including Mathematics and Statistics, Environmental Sciences, Computer Sciences, and Electrical Engineering will provide interdisciplinary training and research opportunities. The NAU Genes to Environment Program has two components:


  1. An interdisciplinary dissertation research project that incorporates aspects of genetic and environmental analysis phenomena using state-of-the-art research facilities. Students will be mentored by highly qualified faculty within the context of existing projects that integrate disciplines and use multiple technical approaches.
  2. Two required curricular elements:  A) a Genes to Environment theory course taught cooperatively by several NAU faculty that introduces research spanning the genes to environment theme and provides practical experience working with genetic data.  B) a seminar on research presentation and design in which students present their research ideas and obtain/provide feedback from peers and program faculty.