Science Story February 2020

How to raise a scientist

What happens when two scientists at RMBL fall in love, get married, and start a family? The result could be a baby scientist, or if not a scientist, an exceptionally curious child who grows up with an innate affinity for nature.

Exhibit A: Dr. Amy Iler, Dr. Paul CaraDonna, and their daughter Zoe. Amy first came to RMBL in 2010 to do post-doctoral research with Dr. David Inouye. She returned to RMBL the next summer, where she met Paul CaraDonna, who was just starting a PhD program. A warm friendship developed between the two. The following summer, they reconnected at RMBL, and their friendship blossomed into a perennial match.

Now they’re summer regulars at RMBL, hiking through wildflower meadows with their daughter Zoe in tow. In addition to being partners in life, they’re also research collaborators. At age three, Zoe is not yet a research assistant, but give her time.

Amy and Paul’s work on Dr. Inouye’s phenology study has yielded some interesting observations. Up until recently, what we know about the effects of climate change on the timing of biological events (phenology) in plants has been based only on the dates of first flowering. But what about the timing of peak flowering and last flowering? These haven’t been explored. Until now.

Amy and Paul used RMBL’s more than 40-year dataset of the first, peak, and last flowerings of 60 species (with over two million flower counts) and found that the timing of each phase of flowering changes independently. Therefore, to limit one’s observations to just the first day of flowering misses the big picture. It also underestimates the number of species whose flowering times have changed and the extent to which these changes have reshaped the entire plant community. For example, researchers have found that the flowering season has expanded by more than a month over the course of the study’s four decades.

What are the consequences of these changes? We need to know, because phenology is one of the strongest bioindicators of climate change. And what about the effects on other species, like pollinators? We already know that pollinators are in decline around the world. Does this mean that flowering plants will decline too?

Amy and Paul are working on answers. Currently, they’re collaborating on a study to understand what happens to plant populations under different pollination scenarios. To do this, they are following the fates of 5,000 plants (1,000 plants each of five species) subjected to different pollination treatments: 1) increased pollination, 2) reduced pollination, 3) interannually variable pollination, and 4) an unmanipulated control.

While it might seem obvious that fewer pollinators mean fewer plants, it’s not that simple. Some plants may have strategies to deal with a dearth of pollinators. This study will help scientists understand and predict the ecological consequence of pollinator declines.

As far as the consequences of raising a daughter who spends her summers discovering the wonders of RMBL, that remains to be seen, and, according to Amy and Paul, it’s immensely fun to watch. “It’s becoming clear what a unique place this is for us,” said Paul. “It’s a community that supports families. A lot of field stations are not that welcoming to families.”

Back in Chicago, where Amy and Paul spend the rest of their year at the Chicago Botanic Garden, turning Zoe loose outdoors would be out of the question. But here at RMBL, Paul said, “She can wander around. She has so much room to explore.”

What’s more, Paul added that being at RMBL allows her to mingle with a really stimulating group of people. “She’s cooking in such a great stew.”


Paul CaraDonna earned a degree in botany from Humboldt State University in northern California. As an undergraduate, he spent his summers as a botanist for the US Forest Service in Montana and as a research intern in Puerto Rico. He received a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, where he studied the consequences of climate change for plant-pollinator interactions at RMBL. He spent two years as a research fellow in Denmark. He is now a research scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden and an assistant professor at Northwestern University. He has been conducting research on plants and pollinators at RMBL since 2011.


Amy Iler earned her PhD in Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at The Ohio State University. She studied the plants and pollinators at RMBL as a postdoctoral researcher with the University of Maryland. She continued her research on how climate change affects the timing of biological events as a Marie Curie research fellow at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies at Aarhus University in Denmark. Amy is now a research scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University, where she studies how environmental changes affect ecological processes, teaches ecology courses, conducts science outreach, and mentors undergraduate, Masters, and PhD students.