Meet the Researcher: Gerard Sapés
Post-Doctoral Associate | he/him/his
Gerard Sapés is part of an MITPPC-funded team led by biologists Jeannine Cavender-Bares and Jennifer Juzwik. Check out this profile's companion piece, "Saving America's Tree."
Can you give a quick overview of your work with MITPPC?
My job is to disentangle the physiological processes that underlie oak wilt. We know quite a bit of what this disease is, in terms of the symptomatology of it. But we still don't understand well enough the physiological processes that occur with the disease to eventually kill the tree.
We should care about that part specifically because, ideally, what we want to be able to do is to predict mortality risk no matter what environment, climate, species or place we’re working with. Getting to the mechanism of how things work gives you more power to provide answers to your questions.
What drew you to invasive species research?
I did my Ph.D. at the University of Montana in Missoula, where I was doing work focused on figuring out the physiological mechanisms that kill plants under drought stress. The topics in this project are a corollary to those kinds of questions I've already been asking about tree mortality and how a changing world is affecting systems – land use, transportation, human migration and climate change. I can't not study invasive species. It's a perfect opportunity to study how tree mortality happens.
Also, it's interesting because I'm originally from Europe. A lot of the species that are invasive here are species that in my home are just normal plants. Then you come here and see fields of knotweed that are totally destroying everything. And it's like, "This is the same plant? What's happening here?" It's a total change in behavior and biology of the species. It's very shocking and interesting. It's just a perfect opportunity to ask questions.
One of the other PI's on our project, Jennifer Juzwik of the US Forest Service, is our expert on invasive oak wilt disease. We all rely a lot on her expertise – the fungus aspect of the disease, because we are more the 'plant people' and we bring hyperspectral imaging expertise. I wouldn't even know how to inoculate my trees if Jennifer hadn't taught me. Our collaboration has allowed us to put our knowledge sets of physiology and hyperspectral technology together.
What is one thing you hope people can take away from your research project by the end of it?
I hope it opens a lot of opportunities for people who are trying to stop this disease, and for identifying where they should go and where they should manage for oak wilt without having to send hordes of people into the middle of the woods to find one tree. We want to make sure that what we're seeing here in experiment matches what's happening in nature.
When you are not out in the field or in the lab, what do you like to do for fun?
Well, I'm a big sucker for video games. I also love to go ice skating – I just love the freedom of it, it feels close to flying. I'm specifically into extreme ice skating. It's silly, and a good way to blow off steam.
Then when I have time, I play guitar and keyboards. I used to have a band in Spain. We would do our rehearsals at our high school, where we had permission to go into the building on weekends and after hours. And every single time, the neighbors would call the police because they thought that somebody was stealing stuff from the school. For some reason, it made sense to them that the thieves would just start blasting music out loud in the middle of the day! So, we called ourselves 'The Thieves' in Spanish.
About the Author
Caro Silvola is a Communications Intern with the Minnesota Invasive Terrestrial Plants and Pests Center (MITPPC). She is a double major in Bioproducts & Biosystems Engineering and English Literature and is highlighting research-community partnerships in the summer of 2019. Outside of the office, Caroline likes biking, making art, exploring, volunteering in her community and participating in environmental movement spaces.