Kelly Kerr


  • Time Zone

  • Organization
    The University of Utah

  • Employment Status
    University / College Graduate Student

  • Role
    Scientist Mentor: I will mentor teams of students online

  • Research Interests (300 words)
    My background in plant science includes a BS in Plant Biology and a MS in Forestry, along with numerous research job experiences. I have always been fascinated with plant science. My research interests in plant science mostly revolve around plant physiology, or the functioning of plants. Specifically, I am interested in plant physiological responses to changes in the environment in order to study and predict how plants will respond to climate change. Climate change is anticipated to alter precipitation patterns in many plant ecosystems, which will likely impact seedling establishment as seedling germination and survival are strongly influenced by water availability. Most of my career has been spent studying the growth and physiology of tree seedlings, and how these components are affected by water availability. Currently, I am working at the University of Georgia as a research assistant in the Plant Biology department were I study sunflower physiology in response to stresses, like drought. Both of these experiences investigated genetic and phenotypic variation in tree species population or breeding lines of sunflower. So I am also now very interested in how population- and species-specific differences in physiological responses to drought can allow us to select for drought resistance in species. Many of the techniques and methods used to study tree seedling and sunflower physiology are the same, and both plant types provide valuable services and products to the human population. So I would like to continue studying plant physiology to help address many of the concerns involving the effect of climate change on plant communities.

  • Profile Question 1
    When and why did you decide to go into a science career?

  • Answer the question you selected for profile question 1 here (300 words):
    I started college as a physical therapists major. The majority of my childhood was spent playing sports or participating in lots of different outdoor recreation activities, so I endured my fair share of injuries and wanted to give back to the sports community through physical therapy. One of my required biology courses for the major was Plant Biology, and I was immediately hooked on plant science after that. The concepts, ideas and theories taught in that class came so naturally to me, and I found it exciting and fascinating the study - something I think is very important when you choose to make a career out of something. So, I switched majors to Plant Biology and have never regretted that decision. Choosing a career in science was also a great match for my personality. I have found that successful scientists work well both independently and with others, and collaboration with scientists from other disciplines can help your research become more robust and impactful. I really enjoy working in groups, but I also work well alone, and I also enjoy studying and including concepts outside of my area of expertise. I like looking at science as a big picture, instead of just focusing on one aspect all the time. I really like working outdoors, and I have found that doing field-based science allows me to balance my time spent in the field and in the laboratory, the best of both worlds for me. As a scientist, I usually find myself addressing technical or mechanical setbacks in an experiment, which is also fun for me as I like solving and fixing problems and like to get my hands dirty. Finally, a career in science is dynamic, meaning that tasks vary from day to day and from week to week. I like having a schedule that changes all the time, and my personality is very flexible to such changes. It prevents my job from feeling redundant or too repetitive. I really enjoy being a scientist!

  • Profile Question 2
    What is the coolest thing you have discovered or learned about plants?

  • Answer the question you selected for profile question 2 here (300 words):
    Most of my career as a scientist has been spent working in plant physiology, or the functioning of plants. I am most interested in understanding how plants respond physiologically to changes in the environments, namely when resources become limited like water or sunlight. I am also very interested in how physiology drives seedling establishment and how physiological traits vary from seedlings to adults. One of the coolest things I've discovered, or considered, about plants is about trees. It is amazing to me that so many of the tree species that dominate our forests are generally very tall, stately, massive things but they all started from extremely fragile, small seedlings. A lot of these species have specific requirements for successful seed germination (i.e. frost, cold temperatures, fire, water). The seedling life stage is also the most vulnerable life stage of a tree, and seedlings experience high rates of mortality due to a whole host of abiotic and biotic factors (i.e. trampling, herbivory from animals, too much water/not enough water, wind, soil). The odds seem extremely stacked against these baby trees, but some of them persevere and become the elegant adult trees we love. As adults, it is also amazing to me that they are able to function. Water needs to be drawn from the soil into the roots, and then pulled up from the roots to the top of the tree where it is released through the leaves in exchange for carbon dioxide. Water is pulled through the trunk of the water through tension, and this tension is made greater when you factor in gravity (i.e. pulling water 100 feet up from the ground for adult trees adds a whole lot of tension). This tension is very similar to pressure, and in some cases, the tension a tree experiences during this water movement exceeds the tire pressure in many of our cars! It is incredible to me that these trees can tolerate such high pressures and can continue to function without damage or swelling, etc. The dynamics of tree growth continue to wow me to this day, and are definitely the coolest things I have discovered about plants.

  • Profile Question 3
    Can you share a funny/interesting lab or field story?

  • Answer the question you selected for profile question 3 here (300 words):
    I once worked as a field technician for a forest health research group that was assessing plots of Douglas-fir trees that were subject to Swiss Needle Cast, an invasive fungal disease affecting many of the Douglas-fir trees in the Pacific Northwest. The plots varied in their degree of pathogen severity, so this research group wanted to monitor the health of these plots over as many years as possible to track stand decline and stand dynamics caused by the disease. Some of the factors they wanted to monitor were stand growth, and the structure and species composition of each stand. However, in order to monitor growth, you had to measure these plots after the growing season ended in order to obtain measurements of total growth for the year and prevent stand to stand variation in measurements. In the Pacific Northwest, this meant working during the winter, or the rainy season. A research assistant and I would travel to field sites during the week, and each day we used a compass to lay out flags to delineate the field site (1/5 acre sites), measured the diameter of every tree in the stand, took heights on the 40 tallest Douglas-fir trees, and recorded all of the species of tree in the site along with its diameter. It frequently rained on us, which made an already slippery forest even more unstable. One day, it had actually snowed the night before, so we were working in a particularly cold plot, but this plot also was nearly completely covered in salal, an understory woody shrub. You practically had to make yourself vertical and "swim" through the salal in order to move around in the site. I was working to map out the edges of the plot, when I pulled on my measuring tape a certain way and it sliced through my finger (I had forgotten to put my gloves on). My finger started gushing blood, but the cold wasn't stopping it, so I had to swim through all of the salal out of the plot and hike back to the truck to get some first aid, leaving small drops of blood in the snow as I went. I then had to play some Marco-Polo with the research assistant in order to find her again through all of the salal. I think we were both frustrated with how the site was treating us, but the salal made the situation very comical, and eventually we couldn't help but laugh at how ridiculous we looked moving through the stand. It also made every other site a lot more enjoyable in perspective.

  • Availability
    I am NOT available, please temporarily remove me from the available mentor list

  • Capacity: How many teams at a time are you comfortable working with?

Recent Posts

Agronomy Feeds the World: Team Pepper Kelly Kerr

Hi Kevin, 

1. Great work overall - sounds like you made some excellent predictions! Interesting observation with the darker green color. One way to investigate that more would be to replicate the experiment and see if you get the same…

Agronomy Feeds the World: Team Pepper Kelly Kerr

Hi Keith, 

1. Nice work if your predictions! Sounds like most of your hypotheses were correct. Hmm, any thoughts as to why the over-watered plant grew more than you expected? 

2. Sounds like you had a very robust experimental design…

Agronomy Feeds the World: Team Pepper Kelly Kerr

Hi Jonathan, 

1. What were your predictions for the over-watered plant again? That it would grow less? Very good prediction work on your part over all!

2. Sounds like you all used a very robust experimental design. 

3. Excellent…


Skills & Endorsements

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NSF_Logo.jpg This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #2010556 and #1502892. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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