Meet a Scientist

Kim La Pierre  | Postdoc | Change Forecasting

Giovanni Rapacciuolo | Postdoc | Ecoengine

Kim La Pierre:  Hammering in metal fence posts for her experiment during a thunderstorm could have been the last thing Kim La Pierre ever did if it hadn’t been for a reminder about basic physics from a concerned passerby. This enthusiasm and focus is typical of Kim’s approach to any scientific question. She has been fascinated by biology ever since she first saw the roots of a bean growing in an elementary school experiment and from very early on had a particular interest in understanding species interactions. Her undergraduate research with Katie Suding (then at UC Irvine) examined the effects of an exotic snail (Otala lactea) on the invasion success of an exotic mustard (Brassica nigra) in Southern Californian grasslands. This was followed by graduate research in Melinda Smith’s lab (Yale University) where she studied the effects of global change factors (increased nutrient availability and herbivore removals) on grassland plant community composition, invertebrate trophic structure, and ecosystem function. She found that abiotic factors (precipitation and nutrient availability) interact with biotic factors (the abundance of dominant species, functional trait expression, and trophic interactions) to affect ecologically and economically important ecosystem processes, such as species reordering and primary production.

Kim is now a postdoc in Ellen Simms’ lab and funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. She is an active participant in the BiGCB species interaction and global change working group and BiGCB lab meetings. Her research questions at UC Berkeley continue her interest in the role of biotic interactions in determining invasion success; Kim is investigating plant-microbial feedback loops in invasive legumes. A legume can successfully invade by obtaining atmospheric nitrogen to outcompete native plants, however this strategy depends upon being able to associate with compatible rhizobia in the exotic range. An invasive legume can either form novel associations with the resident rhizobia in its exotic range or co-invade with rhizobia from its native range; however, both of these strategies depend upon the specificity between a legume species and its rhizobial associates.  

The questions Kim is asking are:

  1. What is the legume-rhizobia specificity for four invasive legumes—Slender Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus angustissimus), gorse (Ulex europaeus), French broom (Genista monspessulana), and Spanish broom (Spartium junceum)—and several native legumes in the San Francisco Bay Area?
  2. Are the invasive legumes able to enforce higher levels of cooperation from their rhizobial associates than native legumes and thus do better under competitive conditions?
  3. How do her discoveries about rhizobial partner specificity of native vs. invasive legumes in the Bay Area compare to those from a meta-analysis of over 200 studies from around the world?

From these studies she will be able identify whether invasive leguminous shrubs in the Bay Area Kim with French Broom (Genista monspessulana)follow trends similar to those observed in other locations, which will have important implications for invasive legume management in California.

Kim was drawn to global change biology because it allows her to address fundamental ecological questions at the same time as providing practical information for ecosystem management practices in response to global change.

When she is not in the lab or out hunting for legumes Kim loves to hike, read and play board games – anyone for Agricola?



Giovanni Rapacciuolo | Postdoc | Ecoengine

Born and raised in Brussels (Belgium), from Neapolitan parents, BiGCB Postdoc Giovanni Rapacciuolo moved to England at the age of 18 for university. At Imperial College London he obtained a Bachelor in Biology, a Masters in Ecology & Evolution, and a PhD in Global Change and Biodiversity. Working with Prof. Andy Purvis during his post-graduate studies, he became particularly interested in testing and improving approaches for predicting the large-scale impacts of global environmental changes, including climate and land use change, on the distribution and abundance of species. Gio’s doctoral work highlighted how examining species’ recent responses can enable a better understanding of the likely impacts of environmental changes, thus improving predictions of future impacts and the management and conservation decisions that rely on those predictions.  

Here at Berkeley, Gio is applying his knowledge and skills to a series of projects within the BiGCB. As the postdoc for the Holos: Berkeley Ecoinformatics Engine project, his work highlights how the integration of diverse data sources in the biological and physical world can be used to improve our understanding of how biodiversity has and is likely to continue to respond to global environmental change. In particular, he is developing novel statistical approaches to harness all the information contained in the decades of collection from the Berkeley Natural History Museums (BNHMs), our only real gateway to understanding the past in California. Despite such collections having been largely opportunistic and unsystematic, novel methods can enable users to disentangle real signatures of population expansions and declines from a variety of collecting biases. With the help of various co-authors, Gio has been applying these new methods to examine questions about recent responses in the California biota, including:

  • What has been the relative importance of 20th century climate change and agricultural intensification on the population trends of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians? (collaborators Andy Rominger, Leithen M’Gonigle)
  • What ecological and life-history attributes predict declines in dragonfly populations? (collaborator Joanie Ball)
  • Are mammals and birds responding to direct or indirect impacts of climate change? (collaborators Maggi Kelly, Michelle Koo)

In addition, Gio has been active in numerous other BiGCB projects. He led a large effort to review the literature on biotic responses to 20th century climate change in California, which gave rise to a high-profile publication in Global Change Biology and included multiple researchers affiliated to the BiGCB[1]. In this review, Using evidence from California, Gio and colleagues suggest that some of the hypotheses that have dominated climate change biology research in recent years, chiefly that warming should be expected as the main driver of biotic changes, are flawed for many systems. Gio has also been an active member of two BiGCB working groups. The first, aims to apply statistical methods developed for short-term population monitoring data to paleontological data to better understand drivers of β-diversity loss in mammals through the Quaternary. The second, aims to combine results from small-scale competitive exclusion and microcosm experiments with species distribution modeling to understand the extent to which biotic interactions determine the distribution and abundance of species at various spatial scales.

In his spare time, Gio makes electronic music as his alter ego Giotonic (Giotonic's soundcloud!) and occasionally djs in venues around the Bay Area. He loves to cook – Italian-Belgian-British-Californian fusion - and exercise - be it on a soccer pitch or a running track.

You can read more about Gio and his research on his website here.

[1] Rapacciuolo, G., S. Maher, A. Schneider, T. Hammond, M. Jabis, R. Walsh, K. Iknayan, G. Walden, M. Oldfather, D. Ackerly and S. Beissinger. 2014. Beyond a warming fingerprint: individualistic biogeographic responses to heterogeneous climate change in California. Global Change Biology (20) 2841-2855. doi: 10.1111/gcb.12638