International networking

The University's strength in plant ecosystem research inspired two first-year graduate students from India to make their way to Minnesota.

Pictured left to right: Mayank Kohli, Siddharth Iyengar, Eric Seabloom and Elizabeth Borer.

When moving halfway around the world to start graduate school, it helps to not do it alone. That was a lucky break for first-year Ecology, Evolution and Behavior graduate students Mayank Kohli and Siddharth Iyengar. 

“We worked in the same lab in India, but when we chose where to accept admission offers, we did so independently,” Iyengar says. “We didn't want to bias the choice of advisor or school.”

Yet both settled on the U of M for its strength in plant ecosystem research and for the wealth of opportunities that exists for them. “I wanted to work on theory in grassland and plant systems, and I can’t think of any other place that comes close to what I wanted,” Kohli says. “You have this great joining of ideas from all over and you can approach anyone for inputs and advice.”

Iyengar adds: “I never expected to be sitting and chatting on a regular basis with people whose papers I read so much.”

Kohli’s research focuses on plant community dynamics, and he hopes to focus specifically on mountain ecosystems, such as the Himalayas. “First, I’m interested in how plant communities assemble, and what determines which plants should grow and which ones should not,” he says. “Next I want to understand the mechanistic reasons for some of these changes, in the context of current global change.”

Iyengar’s work also focuses on plant ecosystems. “I’m interested in identifying the drivers of plant community and ecosystem processes, and I specifically want to look at those drivers in landscapes that are used by humans, for example for grazing or firewood,” he says. He added that he hopes to translate these studies to sites in India as well while he is working on his doctorate.

Iyengar was also drawn to the U of M for the diversity of opportunities here, including interactions with the social sciences. He received a fellowship from the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change. “I plan to use learnings from the social sciences to better understand how people interact with and use nature,” he says.

When applying here for graduate school, they found positions in the labs of Elizabeth Borer and Eric Seabloom, EEB associate professors who, amongst other research activities, host the Nutrient Network at the U of M. While not directly involved with the Network’s research currently, both Kohli and Iyengar credit it with helping to bring them here.

“Our advisor in India is part of the Network and has been to meetings at Minnesota, so it helped us get an idea of the place and the ecology community here.” Kohli says.