Dr. Russo

I joined the Entomology and Plant Pathology Department in March 2019. I am coming to UTIA from Trinity College Dublin, in Ireland, where I completed a Marie Curie Sklodowska Individual Fellowship with Jane Stout. This was my third postdoctoral research experience: I participated in a USDA NIFA grant at Cornell University with Bryan Danforth, and an NSF DMS grant at Penn State University with Kat Shea. I have also worked at the University of Queensland in the Spatial Ecology Lab with Yvonne Buckley. My primary teaching responsibilities in the past included introductory biology and ecology and ecological modeling, but I have also helped to teach three international field courses (in Costa Rica and Kenya).[bg_collapse view=”link” color=”#f48222″ expand_text=”Read More” collapse_text=”Read Less” ]

I received my Ph.D. at the Penn State University under the supervision of Prof. Katriona Shea in the Biology Department and the Interdepartmental Graduate Program in Ecology. My research program has largely focused on the mutually beneficial interactions between plants and their pollinating insects, with a special focus on the provision of ecosystem services in agroecosystems, although I have worked in a variety of other systems, including invasive species in the Great Lakes, termites in Brazil, bees and elephants in Kenya, and birds in powerline cuts. I am particularly interested in the assembly, dynamics, and resilience of these networks of mutualistic interactions. I have mentored four graduate students as well as over a dozen undergraduate field and lab assistants, and have served on one graduate committee. Undergraduates have played an integral roles in many of my studies and are represented as coauthors on five of my manuscripts. I have also mentored five students from underprivileged inner city high schools and worked with three undergraduates that were part of a program to increase diversity in STEM. Strengthening international collaborations is also one of my major focuses. I look for win-win scenarios in teaching, research, and conservation.[/bg_collapse]

A small, cute native bee crawling up a bright, yellow flower for a good meal of pollen and nectar

Research focus

Pollinators provide critical pollination services and yet they are threatened by a suite of hazards, including habitat loss, pesticide application, parasites and pathogens. In agricultural systems, insect pollinators ensure the production of crop yield, but are also threatened by the intensification of agricultural practices. One of my primary focuses is thus identifying mutually beneficial scenarios between agriculture and conservation. For example, we demonstrated that communities of wild pollinators provide the majority of the pollination services in apple orchards in the Finger lakes region of New York. This allowed some farmers to save money as they no longer had to rent honeybee hives. However, the availability of wild pollinators on the landscape is directly linked to the availability of natural habitat, including weedy edge habitats around agricultural fields. Understanding the role of this weedy habitat in the health and nutrition of pollinators will be key to the future of sustainable pollination services that are not dependent on a single species. Another fundamental focus of my research is exploring the ways in which networks of mutualistic interactions form, how they respond to perturbations, and whether we can manage them through applied actions. This involves developing theoretical models to provide testable hypotheses, complemented by experimental manipulations of network structure. I have previously explored the role of diffuse coevolution in structuring these interactions, as well as the influence of disturbances such as species invasion and agricultural runoff on network structure.

A close-up of a small, native bee resting; you can see pollen particles stuck to his tiny hairs

Extension and outreach focus

Both mentoring and outreach are an important component of my teaching responsibilities. In particular, I enjoy teaching students (of all ages) in field environments. I have had the privilege of helping to teach three separate international field courses (twice in Costa Rica, once in Kenya), but I also regularly participate in field trips and outings on a local scale where I can teach both students and people of all ages about biotic interactions.[bg_collapse view=”link” color=”#f48222″ expand_text=”Read More” collapse_text=”Read Less” ]

My current research involves interacting directly with businesses to help promote biodiversity initiatives in Dublin. I am also collaborating with two different schools in Dublin, and developing a citizen science component with these schools and businesses. Gardeners, schools, and businesses can have a big impact when it comes to pollinator conservation. By providing floral resources on small scales across the landscape, we can develop a network of habitat fragments that promote both the abundance and diversity of pollinating insects.

In the past, I have worked closely with farmers and land managers to promote initiatives that both improve pollination services to the crops, as well as improve the conservation value of the agroecosystem. Farmers also have a lot of expertise on managing complex systems, which is an invaluable input to the research.[/bg_collapse]

Close-up of an emerald-green native bee digging into a purple flower for pollen and nectar

Teaching focus

My teaching philosophy is to actively engage my students in both a classroom and a field setting. I am very passionate about taxonomy and natural history for a broad range of organisms, and this passion can be a significant advantage, but even so it can be difficult to engage a classroom full of students. For this reason, I have developed a number of strategies to get students excited about their work.[bg_collapse view=”link” color=”#f48222″ expand_text=”Read More” collapse_text=”Read Less” ]

I have found games to be a valuable new addition to my teaching strategy. For example, on a recent field course to Kenya, I developed a game where the students could compete by accumulating an arbitrary set of points (unrelated to their grade), as they identified ecological processes in the field and explained them to me. I have also developed games as a way to teach network theory, for the identification of plants and insects, and for recall. The advantage of using games is that it can engage students with a competitive spirit who may not be interested in other forms of interactive learning. Competitive students are motivated to “win” educational games even when the only prize is the ability to say they won.

Interactive Modeling and Learning
In the classroom, one of the best ways to engage students is through interactive modeling and learning. Quantitative modeling skills are a vital tool for both undergraduate and graduate students. In all teaching settings, I believe that it is critical to allow the students to directly interact with the material, as opposed to solely being passive listeners to a lecture.[/bg_collapse]


Pollinator Biology

Recent News

laura russo

Assistant Professor
office (865) 974-9719

210 Ellington Plant Sciences Building
2505 EJ Chapman Drive
Knoxville, TN 37996-4560

B.A., Biology, Oberlin College
Ph.D., Ecology, Pennsylvania State University

Professional appointment
90% Research, 10% Teaching

Graduate program concentrations
M.S. – Entomology
Ph.D. – Organismal Biology, Ecology, and Systematics

Areas of expertise
Pollination ecology, network theory, field biology, botany, entomology, invasion biology

coevolution, invasive species, mutualisms, plant-insect interactions, ecosystem services, agroecology

Information for prospective students and postdoctoral researchers
I currently am accepting graduate students. I am interested in internally motivated students and others who feel comfortable working well past the minimum target. Please contact me if you are interested in learning more about research opportunities in my laboratory.

Creative Art Microscope image

Research questions in our laboratory

  • How do we identify win-win scenarios between conservation and agriculture?
  • How do networks of interactions form between plants and pollinators?
  • What are the patterns and processes that operate on these networks?
  • Can we manipulate and manage complex networks of species interactions?
  • Can we quantify diffuse coevolution acting on the interactions between plants and pollinators?

Current lab members

  • Ms. Devon Eldridge BS: MS Student
  • Ms. Amani Khalil BS: MS Student
  • Mr. Nicholas Oldham BS: MS Student

Selected Publications
1. Russo, L, Miller, AD, Tooker, J, Bjornstad, ON, & Shea, K. Quantitative evolutionary patterns in mutualistic networks: Vicariance, phylogenetic tracking, or coevolution? Methods in Ecology and Evolution (IF 6.554) (in press). (A new method to evaluate evolutionary processes in plant-insect interactions, without requiring phylogenetic resolution.)

2. Russo, L, Park, M, Blitzer, EJ, & Danforth, B. (2017) Foraging behavior and abundance determine the relative importance of pollinators in apple orchards. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and the Environment (IF 2.859), 246: 102-108. (Unmanaged bees contribute twice the pollination services as rented honeybees; two orchard managers stopped renting honeybees saw no loss of yield.)

3. Russo, L. & Danforth, B. (2017) Pollen preferences among the bee species visiting apple (Malus pumila) in New York. Apidologie (IF 1.76), doi:10.1007/s13592-017-0525-3. (Bee pollinators of apples rely on early flowering tree species for pollen.)

4. Russo, L. & Shea, K. (2017) Experimentally increased network connectance is associated with increased bee species richness and abundance in a plant-pollinator community. Journal of Complex Networks: cnw024. (We were able to experimentally increase connectance in a bee-plant network through fertilization.)

5. Russo, L. (2016) Positive and negative impacts of non-native bee species around the world. Insects, 7(4): 69. doi:10.3390/insects7040069. (Top 20% in citations for the field of Environment/Ecology)

6. Russo, L, Nichol, C, & Shea, K. (2016) Pollinator floral provisioning by a plant invader: quantifying beneficial effects of detrimental species. Diversity and Distributions (IF 4.830), 22:189-198. (The presence of an invasive thistle increases bee abundance by over 300% and bee species richness by 35%. Top 20% in citations in field of Environment/Ecology)

For complete list of publications please visit my