Southwood Prize 2020: early career researcher winner announced

We’re excited to announce Pu Jia as the winner of this year’s Southwood Prize, celebrating the best paper by an early career researcher in the 2020 (57th) volume of Journal of Applied Ecology.

Pu’s winning paper is Plant diversity enhances the reclamation of degraded lands by stimulating plant–soil feedbacks.

About the research

While the ecological literature on the linkages between biodiversity and ecosystem function is rich, the application of this field of research to reclaiming contaminated lands has been strangely depauperate.

There is little guidance on whether we should be planting diverse plant assemblages on contaminated lands, or if we ought to simply plant the most productive species or those that provide efficient phyto-removal of contaminants. This issue is of fundamental importance to places like China – and with China’s commitment to improving its environmental health, biodiversity research has the ability to impact policy and management at a national scale.

To shed light on this issue, Pu and colleagues performed a land reclamation experiment on a heavily degraded mine wasteland in China, and assessed land reclamation efficiency by examining several criteria of ecosystem function.

Their results show how diverse plant assemblages are better able to spur plant-soil feedbacks, and that increasing plant diversity is an effective strategy to enhance land reclamation after contamination. The findings demonstrate that the key for reclamation is to build high-diversity plant assemblages to ensure that soil processes, like decomposition and nutrient cycling, can support a self-sustaining ecosystem.

Journal of Applied Ecology‘s Executive Editor, Jos Barlow, had this to say about the research:

“Experimental evidence remains relatively rare in applied ecology, with many of inferences borne from observational studies. We appreciated the carefully thought through experimental design. This approach, over three years, was particularly useful as it allowed the researchers to examine the mechanisms underpinning the findings. Some of these, such as the plant-soil feedbacks, are unexpected and novel. The results lead to clear recommendations about land reclamation after mining, highlighting the importance of species diversity and the role of specific plant families and species.”

Journal of Applied Ecology’s Senior Editor, Nathalie Pettorelli, added:

Overall, it fills an important gap in the literature (i.e., how do you reclaim contaminated land for biodiversity conservation?), it is very topical (UN decade of restoration – this is the kind of science we need), it mixes neatly theory and management realities, it is interdisciplinary, it covers three years of quite incredibly detailed data and all of that was achieved despite a challenging fieldwork and academic environment. We think it is an exciting piece that should appeal to a large audience.”

About the winner

Pu studies the diversity, assembly and dynamics of microbial community, and the microbial mechanisms that influence ecosystem functioning in natural and artificial ecosystems by using multi-omics approaches, with broad interests in biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Institute of Ecological Science, South China Normal University, China, Pu previously spent 3 years at Sun Yat-sen University, China and one year at University of Toronto Scarborough, Canada, completing a PhD in 2018. Their PhD investigated the strength of the above-ground-below-ground interactions, which formed the basis for the winning paper.

Pu continues to work on forest ecosystems, agro-ecosystems and heavily degraded mined land across mainland China and, as a continuation of the paper in Journal of Applied Ecology, is currently conducting similar field trials and research in three demonstration sites of metalliferous mine wastelands in southeast China.

The winning article, Plant diversity enhances the reclamation of degraded lands by stimulating plant–soil feedbacks, along with the other shortlisted papers are free to read for a limited time in this virtual issue.

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