Oklahoma State University forestry student Luke Wilson earned his Bachelor of Science degree in May 2019, and did so having already made his mark in research that many graduate students and even some longtime professionals never attain.
“Look at the number, type and amount of research grants that Luke has secured and you would think he has been a faculty researcher for years,” said Tom Kuzmic, Wilson’s academic adviser and a professor of forestry with the OSU department of natural resource ecology and management. “It is no surprise that Luke was awarded a 2019 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, one of the premier honors awarded to a student researcher.”
The prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based advanced degrees at accredited U.S. institutions.
Wilson is off to the University of Georgia in the fall to earn his master’s degree, taking with him a growing reputation for tackling some of the more challenging aspects of scientific discovery related to climate change and environmental stewardship. Most people know plants play an important role in trapping carbon emissions. Unfortunately, forests may respond to a changing climate – such as increased drought conditions – by reducing carbon uptake.
“While both soil water supply and atmospheric demand are well-known components of overall drought stress, the interaction between these and their relative influences on plant stress and carbon intake are poorly understood,” Wilson said. “You might say I just kind of jumped in the deep end, but it fascinated me and struck me as an opportunity to do something important.”
The son of Cynthia Wilson of Norman, Oklahoma, and Chuck Wilson of Moore, Oklahoma, he grew up curious about the world around him. He loved to wander through the woods, taking in the various sights and sounds. He would pepper his father with questions about the plants and animals. They built a tree house together, where the younger Wilson spent countless hours staring at his surroundings and wondering what secrets they held.
“Then I saw firsthand the drought conditions of 2011 and 2012,” Wilson said. “I wondered why so many trees had died and tried to understand the processes involved.”
Following his graduation from Norman High School in 2015, Wilson enrolled at OSU as an environmental science major. The field of study intrigued him during his first year of college, but still failed to make that special connection. Then he took a dendrology course, where he learned to identify trees and woody plants.
“I was hooked,” Wilson said. “Dendrology rekindled my interest in how trees interact with their environment to create the widely diverse characteristics we see across the landscape. I literally began to see the forest for the trees, as the old saying goes, understanding concepts like environmental niches and resource use for the first time.”
Then fate stepped in again. That same semester he took an introductory plant biology course where he delved into the anatomy, physiology, structure and function of plants. The teaching assistant for the course – William Hammond, himself a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship awardee – invited Wilson to his research laboratory on OSU’s Stillwater campus.
“Within two months, I had switched my major to forest ecology and management,” Wilson said. “I earned the opportunity to work with Dr. Kuzmic as a teaching assistant for the very class that led me to my area of undergraduate study and research.”
Another watershed moment came when Wilson spent a week with Kuzmic in the American Southwest, learning how Native American and Hispanic cultures maintained good stewardship by balancing how they used the natural resources of the region.
“Through this experience, I gained new insight into landscapes outside Oklahoma, and even more importantly, how people interact with those landscapes,” Wilson said.
Returning to Stillwater, Wilson began working with Hammond and Henry Adams, an assistant professor in the OSU department of plant biology, ecology and evaluation. Wilson assisted in greenhouse and laboratory experiments testing the lethal water-stress threshold of Oklahoma tree species. He then assisted in the interpretation of results, and collaborated on the writing of a scientific publication that has been accepted by the peer-reviewed scientific journal New Phytologist, an influential voice in the scientific plant community since 1902.
In 2017, Wilson applied for and was awarded a competitive $5,000 summer Research Experience for Undergraduates grant from the Oklahoma Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, commonly referred to as EPSCoR. At the same time, he began an international collaboration to establish a laboratory protocol for the measurement of non-structural carbohydrates, an important indicator of plant health.
At the Society of American Foresters National Convention in 2017, Wilson shared his novel findings that showed non-structural carbohydrate concentrations were not a predictor of life or death at the lethal hydraulic threshold of loblolly pine.
Adams then hired him to assess the native but aggressive expanding species Juniperus virginiana – what most Oklahomans simply call the eastern redcedar tree – and its interaction with drought and fire. Wilson presented his findings at the Oklahoma Natural Resource Conference in 2018, showing that greenhouse and field studies do not predict fire risk similarly and future drought will only increase the potential for catastrophic wildfire conditions. His poster presentation was awarded top honors by conference officials.
“Luke’s work will help inform resource managers how drought influences wildfire conditions under future global climate change, and also can be applied to fire danger predictions, both of which are of great benefit,” Adams said. “The tougher the research project, the more Luke gets into it. If the science needs to be done, Luke’s attitude is ‘let’s do it.’”
Wilson was just getting warmed up. He secured yet more competitive grants, including two endowed research grants totaling $12,500 as well as a $5,600 NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates grant, where he observed heat wave events and measured their effect on mortality of Pinus edulis – commonly known as the Colorado pinyon tree – under the mentorship of University of Arizona researcher David Breshears. The results are currently in preparation for publication, the first manuscript where Wilson is the lead author, a highly uncommon occurrence for an undergraduate student.
“Luke has always jumped into a project with excitement and commitment, and has grown as a scientist to the point where he has developed and led original research worthy of publication in peer-reviewed journals, which is pretty important in the scientific community,” Hammond said. “Plus he is a great guy and scientific collaborator. He has an ability to make hard work fun, and make you feel as though no obstacle is too big to overcome. If technology won’t let us do something, let’s design it. If there is a gap in scientific knowledge on a subject, let’s fill it in.”
Nor does Wilson limit his sharing of advances in science to his fellow researchers across the world. He has been active in taking the science and finding ways to share it with the public. He has led efforts to monitor local streams as a citizen scientist; created an educational video about tree mortality and its implications on the future, presenting it at Biosphere 2, the American Earth system science research facility located in Oracle, Arizona; and conducted workshops for OSU clubs and public and private organizations.
“We in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, and indeed all of OSU, place a great emphasis on providing opportunities for students,” Kuzmic said. “It’s part of our land-grant mission, to make the world a better place and improve people’s quality of life. But the student has to want to take advantage of those opportunities. If anyone needs a role model as to how it’s done, look to Luke Wilson.”
Additional information about student opportunities and study programs in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources is available online at casnr.okstate.edu.