Liana Burghardt— PI|Mentor|Learner

Liana is an evolutionary ecologist broadly interested in how the environment shapes the evolution of organisms (primarily plants and microbes). Prior to starting my lab in the Dept. of Plant Science at PSU, I was a postdoc at the University of Minnesota in the lab of Peter Tiffin, a graduate student at Duke University in the lab of Kathleen Donohue, and a postbac in Johanna Schmitt’s lab at Brown University. When I am not in the lab, I’m an avid gardener, mountain biker, and cross-country skier. Feel free to contact me at: liana.burghardt at psu dot edu

Gina Bledsoe–Researcher|Lab Manager|Mentor

Gina is an environmental microbiologist with an interest in plant-microbe ecology. She received her BA from Nicholls State Univ. where she studied plant growth promoting rhizobacteria associated with Sporobolus alterniflorus (formerly Spartina alterniflora). More recently, she completed her PhD from East Carolina Univ. in the lab of Ariane Peralta while studying the response of bacterial and fungal rhizosphere communities to long-term fertilization. Gina has a thing for cats, hiking, baking and growing things… mushrooms, sourdough and plants (incidentally butterflies/moths too)… and now rhizobia! Google Scholar Page.

Lillian Cherry nee Leak— Ph.D. student in Plant Biology Program (started Fall 2020)

Lily is interested in how environmental changes impact species interactions and plant physiology. She studied the environmental drivers of duckweed (Lemnaceae) species composition in Western Pennsylvania in Martin Turcotte’s lab, while earning her B.S. in Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. Besides plants, her interests are drawing, reading, cooking/baking, and exploring State College’s nature. She can be found on Twitter @lilylemnaceae

Gwendolyn Fry— PSU Undergraduate student majoring in Biology and Anthropology (started Fall 2021)

In addition to helping out in the lab and the field, Gwen has led the charge on a seemingly endless nodule image analysis from a Medicago host mutant experiment. The team is exceedingly grateful for her persistence with this task!

Jennifer Harris— Ph.D. student in Ecology Program (started Fall 2020)

Jenn studied Biological Sciences and Environmental Studies at Wellesley College, and worked at a sustainable agriculture startup before joining the lab. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in the Ecology Program and is interested in plant-microbe interactions, soil microbial ecology, and nutrient cycling. She is also co-advised by Estelle Couradeau in Ecosystem Science and Management. 

Maria Alejandra Gil Polo— Ph.D. student in Plant Biology Program (started Spring 2021)

Maria is fascinated by Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria (PGPRs). She earned her B.S. in biology at Universidad Nacional Agraria la Molina (Peru) and conducted research at the CBGP in Spain and Cornell University. During that time, Maria took part in diverse projects related to biological control, microbial diversity, and the secretion of recombinant proteins. While examining the role secretion systems play in plant-bacteria communication, she became particularly fascinated by the molecular mechanisms underlying the rhizobium-legume symbiosis. In grad school, she seeks to learn more about the genes and molecular processes behind this relationship.

Elizabeth Piallan— Undergraduate student in Plant Science Program (started in Lab Fall 2021)

Hailing from Florida, Liz joined the lab via Penn State Behrend Campus! She is a crucial component of the team isolating and sequencing a new rhizobia collection from alfalfa variety trials at PSU. Getting out into the field and helping collect nodules is also a strength!

Karin Burghardt— look alike

This is me, with my brilliant identical twin sister Karin. She is not actually in the lab. She is an assistant professor in the Entomology Department at the University of Maryland (check out her website!). This can be confusing at conferences. She studies plant-insect interactions in natural and human-influenced systems. While not technically part of the lab, there will be joint lab outings since her lab is only ~3 hours away!


I made this cake to celebrate the defense of the formidable Dr. Lindsay Leverett who has now found her calling as an academic editor. She studied the shift from facilitation to competition across ontogeny in Arabidopsis in the field (note the different-sized rosettes).