Wichita State News
Photo: Lainie Rusco
Leland Russell, left, and wife Mary Liz Jameson are faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences. Russell studies plant life, while Jameson studies insects.

Husband-and-wife biology faculty learn from each other's work

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Deep in the corridors of Wichita State University’s Hubbard Hall, two Biological Sciences faculty are intertwined in a sometimes contentious relationship.

Associate professor Mary Liz Jameson is a biodiversity scientist. Her research focuses on the science of insects, specifically beetles.

Associate professor Leland Russell is a plant population and community ecologist. His research focuses on the effects that herbivores, such as beetles, have on plants.

Jameson and Russell are married. One studies beetles. The other studies plants.

Beetles eat plants. Plants can poison beetles.

Can this relationship be saved?

Working together

Jameson and Russell have joked before about the comparisons between their two specialties. While, yes, sometimes their subjects can be at odds with each other, mostly it’s a symbiotic connection.

“Plants need beetles,” Russell said. “Beetles are the primitive pollinators. And, of course, the plants give the beetles their food. So there’s a positive take on it as well.”

Jameson agrees, calling theirs a “mutualistic relationship.”

Russell, a St. Louis native, didn’t develop an interest in insects until he met Jameson at the University of Nebraska, where Russell was working as a post-doctoral researcher and Jameson was a research assistant professor working on a grant. Jameson is a native of Lincoln, Neb., and earned her bachelor’s and master’s at Nebraska and her Ph.D. from the University of Kansas.

“I’ve always thought about how the plants can provide sustenance for my insects,” Jameson said. “Now I think also about how the flowers benefit, or don’t benefit, from the insects feeding on them or using them.”

The couple enjoys working side by side whenever possible. Recently colleagues from the Czech Republic came to Wichita to work on a project involving insects that feed on thistles, giving Jameson and Russell a chance to work together on their specialties.

They also enjoy traveling, and, in January, will go to Peru, where Jameson will help lead a course.

“We both are fascinated with the natural world, so we have a lot of fun going out and identifying plants and identifying insects,” Russell said.

Teaching what they know

As much as Jameson and Russell like research, they equally enjoy passing on their knowledge to WSU students.

Russell spends time teaching his students about plants on the Ninnescah, Gerber and Sellers Reserves – tracts of land where WSU has field stations for students to study plant, insect and animal life.

Jameson said her position affords her the ability to teach biology and higher-level courses, as well as help give some of her students real-world experience outside of the classroom and in the field.

A recent graduate student, Matt Moore, traveled to Guatemala in May to search for a specific type of beetle. Jameson said she enjoys helping further her students’ interests and career goals.

“I like to make biology and science accessible to students, to challenge them to think conceptually, and to apply the tools that they gain in classes to their everyday life,” she said.

Discovering new species

Jameson, who has been interested in tropics and conservation since childhood, has only been associate professor at Wichita State for only one year. But she has already made a lasting impact on her field of study. Read Jameson's full bio.

She has discovered and named 37 new species of scarab beetles through her research in places such as Sumatra, Peru, Honduras, the Soloman Islands and Thailand. Jameson has also had several species actually named in her honor.

“Species are the pieces of the puzzle that help us to understand how all of the components of life on Earth work together,” she said. “Scientists have named about 1.8 million species on Earth, but millions more remain to be described.”

She has yet to name a newly discovered species after Russell, but said she’s working on it.

“I haven’t found just the right one to name after Leland,” she said. “It’s gotta be from someplace he loves. Or it’s gotta have a nice smile. Or it’s gotta be something that strikes me as, like, him.”

Russell jokes that he’d prefer not to be named after a dung beetle.

Farm life shaped Russell’s interests

Russell became assistant professor at WSU in January 2005. Prior to that, he was a research assistant professor at the University of Nebraska.
Read Russell's full bio.

He is most interested in understanding the extent to which herbivores determine why some plant species are abundant and others are rare, as well as how herbivores distribute their food plants to particular habitats.

Russell said he developed his interest in this line of work from his youth. His father’s family owned a farm in central Missouri that had a creek and plenty of woods to explore.

“I think that this exposure to the natural diversity of organisms as a child really shaped my interest in interactions among organisms in natural ecosystems,” he said.

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Created on Tuesday, August 30, 2011; Last modified on Tuesday, September 13, 2011