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.

Sohini Guha— Postdoctoral Researcher (starting Fall 2022)

Sohini received her Ph.D.,  in Prof. Maitrayee DasGupta’s Lab at Calcutta University, India. She studied alternate symbiotic entry mechanisms in legumes using the model mutualism between Peanut-Bradyrhizobia (e.g. Pub 1 and Pub 2). As a postdoc, she is interested in studying the varied selection pressures on rhizobial populations using Ensifer-Medicago as the model system.  She loves to cook and feed people and is passionate about music. Find her on Twitter @Guha2Sohini

Nicole Meek— Summer Research Assistant (started Spring 2022)

Originally from Eastern PA and a recent graduate from the PSU Plant Science Program, Nicole has been helping out the lab this summer with all manner of tasks including field sampling and processing of nodules and experimental set up/ take down. Nicole’s can do attitude, even in adverse circumstances, makes days go more smoothly.

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 huge help!

Patrick Sydow— Ph.D. student in Applied Environment Plant Science Program (started Fall 2022)

Prior to joining the lab as a Fellow in the Root Resilience Cohort, Patrick studied Biology at the College of Charleston. His past research experiences include examining the role of auxin-related genes in the development of Root System Architecture (RSA) in Arabidopsis thaliana and cultivating unique halophytes at an indoor saltwater agriculture startup. At Penn State, Patrick is interested in utilizing traditional crop model systems such as Maize and Medicago to determine the genetic drivers of root-rhizosphere interactions in changing climates. Patrick is co-advised by Ruairidh Sawers–another faculty member in the Department of Plant Science.

Karin Burghardt— look alike- beware!

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 for others (and for us) at conferences. She studies plant-insect interactions in natural and human-influenced systems. While not technically part of the lab, expect joint lab outings post-covid 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).