“I first set foot in a rainforest in 1975, and I’ve returned every year to study how plants defend themselves against being eaten by insects,” said Phyllis “Lissie” Coley, a US professor emeritus of biology. She was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
NAS members have been elected to the academy in recognition of their outstanding and continuing achievements in original research. Membership is a widely accepted mark of excellence in science and is considered one of the highest honors a scientist can receive. Current NAS membership numbers approximately 2,400 members and 500 international members, of whom approximately 190 have received the Nobel Prize. This year, Kohli is the only university faculty member to receive the honor, and joins the university’s 17 other researchers who are currently fellows.
Kohli’s colleague and current director of School of Biological Sciences Fred Adler said of the news: “The National Academy of Sciences was established by President Abraham Lincoln to advise the nation on science and technology, and membership recognizes outstanding achievements in scientific research. When it comes to understanding the complexities of ecosystems and the risks they face in today’s world, Distinguished Professor Lissy Colley is the expert I turn to to get to the bottom of the matter.’
Coley’s expertise will now be more accessible. Adler concluded, “I am delighted that this inspiring scientist, teacher and mentor will have the opportunity to share his wisdom with our nation at large.”
A dynamic duo
With the late Tom Cursard, Coley’s partner in life and work, the pair combined her training in ecology and his in biophysics to work in multiple countries in both the African Congo and the Amazon, as well as Panama, Borneo and Malaysia.
Coley’s distinctive work in understanding the complexity of ecosystems is due to her focus on why tropical forests are so impressively diverse. “How can 650 tree species – more than in all of North America – live together in one hectare of rainforest?” she asked. Another question related to the first involves what drives the specification. “We have shown that an arms race with insect herbivores leads to extremely rapid evolution of a battery of plant defenses,” she continues, “particularly chemical toxins, so that a herbivore species has evolved counteradaptations that allow it to foods only with plant species with similar protection.”
It turns out that plant species with different defenses do not share herbivores and can therefore coexist, promoting high local diversity. The concept that the great biodiversity of tropical forests is due to these antagonistic interactions is now widely accepted by her colleagues in the field of forest ecology and is now recognized by the NAS.
“I am truly honored that my research and conservation efforts have been recognized,” said Coley, “but they would not have been possible without wonderful collaborators. And I am happy that the young scientists I have mentored continue to explore the many remaining questions in evolutionary ecology.
Doing it personally
To know Coley and Cursard (who died in 2018) is to know that their research is and has been intensely personal. And their ambitions would naturally extend beyond field research to economic opportunities for their friends and associates in Central America, even connecting to social justice. Their concern about the destruction of forests and the people who live in these places led to bioprospecting. “We’ve used our curiosity-driven (basic) research to create ways to benefit intact forests through drug discovery,” Coley explains. Young, expanding tropical leaves invest fifty percent of their dry weight in hundreds of chemicals. “We thought they could be an undiscovered source of pharmaceutical drugs.”
The duo set up their project in Panama, with most of the work being done by local scientists. This resulted in $15 million in seed money for Panama. Their discoveries have led to promising patents, research experiences for hundreds of students, and the creation of more jobs than the country’s widespread and potentially destructive logging.
In addition, the project established the island of Coiba as protected World Heritage Site and created a new voice for Panamanian scientists who help shape government policy and value their natural resources.
While Coley retired from teaching in 2020, her lab and her research continued until recently in the School of Biological Sciences. “I think one of the unifying principles that made our department interesting to me,” she concludes, “is that a lot of faculty were interested at some level in evolution.”
The late C. Gordon Lark, Head of Department in the 1970s, was the impetus for this. “Whether we’re talking about molecular or ecological systems, evolutionary/ecological interactions shape it all. It was an important unifier of research interest in the school,” says Coley in tribute to Lark. Along with recent hires of outstanding young faculty researchers, which she hopes will continue, this “unifier” has helped keep such a large academic unit intact. “That was the glue.”
Because Lisi Coley has always cared a lot about graduate students, she created Coley/Kursar Endowment in 2018 to fund undergraduate field research in ecology, evolution, and organismal biology. The donation is indicative of her dedication, confirmed by Peter Trapa, Dean of the College of Science: “The esteemed Professor Collie has advanced our understanding of plant-animal interactions and tropical ecology in spectacular ways. Selection to the National Academy is a fitting recognition of her profound and impactful contributions.”