Humans spend a lot of time and energy shaping their environment, but University of Connecticut Associate Professor of Chemical & Biomedical Engineering and Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Education Leslie Shor spends her time studying how the environment can shape us.
Shor’s research is interdisciplinary by nature — she spends her time studying very small systems to understand much larger ones. Shor looks at dirt and its effect on the environment.
“My background is in environmental science and chemical engineering,” Shor said. “I’ve kind of bridged those together by trying to understand how the engineering of natural systems — in my case soil — impacts the functions of microbial communities that are really important for plant health and the productivity of plants.”
Among other areas of research, Shor’s recent publications have focused on the roots of common plants and the important role they play in creating a whole world we don’t know about beneath our feet.
“At the underground of a plant there’s almost as much biomass as there is above ground,” Shor said. “If you see a tree, you can imagine there’s potentially as much of a root system below ground as above ground. That’s first of all pretty amazing. And it’s not just the cells of the plant that’s there — the plant is actually supporting a whole ecosystem of microbes and fungi that live below the surface in that dark soil environment.”
Shor’s research on roots has looked at mycorrhizal fungi in particular. These are organisms that help extend the network of roots to be able to reach more nutrients and water.
Shor discussed how currently, human agriculture disrupts some of these essential root systems. Grass is one of the most ubiquitous plants on earth, covering between 20% and 40% of the Earth’s land area according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“I think the way that humans have approached agriculture is a little bit aggressive and controlling, like we’re going to reshape the landscape in a certain way,” Shor said. “I think we have a lot to learn from nature. I think by being more humble, we can maybe have a better performance and certainly obtain greater sustainability.”
Shor has also been looking into how the bacteria in the guts of termites could be useful in developing a macro-level solution to clean energy.
“One of the other challenges we have is to provide energy and fuel for our society,” Shor said. “We’d be in really great shape if we could use cellulose and the lignin that’s in plants for these sorts of needs. Currently, we have bioenergy programs, but generally we’re using the same part that we use for food to convert to energy in the form of ethanol.”
Shor said that termites are somewhat unique in their ability to break down those same materials that would be useful for humans and convert them into energy.
“The termite can take wood and grind it up and convert it [into energy] and fuel its own activities,” Shor said.
Shor said that outside of her research directly, one of the things she cares about the most is expanding diversity in the sciences and academia.
“As you broaden the group of people that’s working on the solutions, you’re also broadening the questions that are being asked, the approaches that are being brought to bare, and you’re improving the outcome for everyone,” Shor said. “If we’re going to solve the grand challenges that face humanity, we need all hands on deck. It can’t just be certain groups of people, certain socioeconomic classes, certain races, certain genders, that are contributing to the solutions. It really is gonna take everybody.”
As for her advice for those who may be interested in research, she said that students should try if, even if they’re unsure if they have anything to contribute. Shor said that she often even learned from her undergraduate researchers.
“I don’t have all the answers. No researcher has all the answers,” Shor said. “If we know what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research. I want to encourage students to jump into this playground whenever the mood strikes them, and engage with this, and contribute to this. That’s really what going to a place like UConn is all about … it’s about contributing to knowledge.”
Grace McFadden is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.