Will Barker

Tell us about your research.

Plants in tropical forest take up CO2 from the atmosphere to photosynthesize and grow, thereby acting as a terrestrial sink for atmospheric CO2 and mitigating global warming. Alongside carbon, plants also need nitrogen for growth, but despite our nitrogen rich atmosphere most plant species cannot use atmospheric nitrogen to grow. Via a partnership with bacteria, a small proportion of plants can fix atmospheric nitrogen into forms usable for plant growth. When these nitrogen fixers then loose leaves or die this nitrogen is returned to the soil by decomposition, providing nitrogen to neighbouring plant species. This source of nitrogen prevents nitrogen promotes plant growth across the forest and leads to more CO2 uptake from the atmosphere. However, previous work suggests that nitrogen fixing plants may undergo more damage from herbivores, which target the nitrogen rich leaves of fixers. This herbivory damage may reduce the nitrogen fixation rates and abundance of tropical nitrogen fixing plants, which would have consequences for nitrogen input and carbon uptake for the whole forest. Therefore, my research aims to determine the effect that insect herbivores have on tropical nitrogen fixation. The findings will help us to better plan reforestation efforts by using nitrogen fixing plants more resistant to herbivory and to better model the growth of tropical forests under climate change into the future.

What is your favourite part of studying at Leeds?

The University of Leeds has a fantastic group for Tropical Forest research, Ecology and Global Change, in which I am based. The expertise and collaborative environment within the group encourages interesting and often unexpected research, which is fun to be a part of. There are also many opportunities for tropical field work, which is what first attracted me to working here. Leeds is also a fun city to live in and is near to some of the nicest areas in the UK for getting outdoors, like the Yorkshire Dales.

What activities do you take part in outside of your studies?

Outside of my research I enjoy learning and speaking Spanish, running, especially in the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District, and sampling the local beer and music around Leeds. I also participate in a Manchester based theatre cooperative, aiming to make theatre that discusses environmental science and its impact on society. 

What are your ambitions for the future?

I hope to continue working in science, either as a researcher or in a science communication role.

Any advice for prospective students?

Consider the city or town you will be studying in, as well as the university and supervisor you will be working with. You are going to live there for three to four years and maintaining a work-life balance is important.