Montana State University graduate student Franklin Alongi is a conifer connoisseur when it comes to research. Specifically, his research has focused on how high-elevation, five-needle white pines and other pine species respond to stressors under predicted changing climate conditions. He has worked on a full range of projects — from genetic screenings to greenhouse experiments — to further understand the ecophysiological differences among pine populations that can help them adapt and survive in a changing environment.
Alongi has accomplished more in his short tenure at the university than most scientists could hope to achieve in their early careers. He graduated this past May with a B.S. in plant science and will finish a master’s degree by the end of the year. During this time, he has amassed an impressive list of publications, conducted research abroad and presented at national and international conferences, including the H5II Conference last fall.
An early introduction to plant-science research
If you ask what the key to his research success has been, Alongi will modestly tell you “luck”, but in speaking with him, it’s obvious that a lot of hard work, determination and talent are all at play. As a self-proclaimed “academic” type, he knew from the start of his undergraduate career that he wanted to do research. It was only the second week of college when he started cold-emailing professors to inquire about research opportunities.
Matt Lavin, professor in the MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology, answered the call and immediately put Alongi to work on a genetics project to develop a low-cost, rapid screening method to distinguish morphologically similar whitebark and limber pine trees — long solving a challenge for researchers studying these pine species. The results of his work were subsequently applied in a modeling study, and the methodology is being used by land managers for monitoring purposes.
A fascination with high-five pines as ecological marvels
Alongi fell in love with the montane ecosystems of the western U.S. during family trips to Yellowstone National Park. He says this was the first time he had seen a landscape that visibly reflected a natural ecosystem, and he was awestruck. Over time, he has become fascinated by high-five pine species because they are “ecological marvels”, employing different evolutionary strategies to live in specific and harsh environments. “I think it’s cool when you go on a hike and you’re up 7,000 feet in the sky and there’s nothing that can grow there except for these super well-adapted specific species,” he remarks.
Additionally, Alongi says it’s important to study these high-five pine species because they are significantly threatened by climate change. In terms of adaptation strategies, upslope migration may not be an option for these trees because they have nowhere to go, which is a phenomenon that most people don’t think about. He says, “They’re the subalpine species, so theoretically they’re the last species that you’re going to find high up in elevation. Eventually they run of out of space to move up and they get outcompeted from below.”
A love for languages and international collaborations
Alongi also graduated with a second bachelor’s degree in modern languages and literature — one that may not seem connected to his science interests but has further expanded his outlook on international research collaborations. Having been born in France and with a sister who lives in Germany, he started studying both languages at a young age. He says a global worldview and love of languages have always been a part of his family’s dynamics.
In the summer after his junior year, he further put his language skills to work and conducted a research internship abroad through the University of Bayreuth in Germany, setting up experimental grassland plots for climate studies. This work has led to co-authorship on papers with his international collaborators and lifelong connections for his research career. (But after discovering an unknown grass allergy during his internship, he says he’ll be sticking to studying trees for the foreseeable future.)
An accelerated track to a future research career
Alongi also has worked on multiple greenhouse experiments, investigating how various high-elevation pine species respond under drought conditions. Most recently, he has been studying the plant defense mechanisms of a southwestern pinyon pine species and whether those defenses are affected by drought stress. This project is co-advised by Lavin and Danielle Ulrich, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Ecology and WPEF board member. Originally an undergraduate project, it has germinated into his graduate work for an accelerated master’s program that he designed.
Alongi says one of the proudest moments of his undergraduate career was being awarded the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship during his sophomore year. He’s also grateful for the countless hours of mentorship he has received from his many research advisors who have fully supported and encouraged his passion for research.
After completing his master’s this fall, he will be returning to Germany for a Ph.D. program at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology–Alpine Campus and working on — you guessed it — high-elevation conifer species in the Bavarian Alps. And he is already planning for an international collaboration between his current and future research institutions.
Written by: Donna Kridebaugh, Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation; used with permission.
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