Hannah Vollmer receives prestigious NSF graduate fellowship to study conservation genetics of rare alpine roses

Hannah Vollmer contemplates a mountainscape.

Hannah Vollmer, a Field Technician at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest and an MS student in biology at Plymouth State University, is the recipient of a graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation.   

The NSF’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), established in 1952, “recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students” pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees in STEM disciplines. In addition to offering opportunities for international research and professional development, fellows receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 and a $12,000 education allowance.

As the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the GRFP has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. The reputation of the GRFP follows recipients and often helps them become life-long leaders that contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching.

Vollmer is currently in her first year of a master’s program in biology at Plymouth State University, where her advisor is evolutionary botanist Dr. Diana Jolles. She plans to use the fellowship to study the genetics and conservation of three alpine roses that are rare to New England: creeping sibbaldia (Sibbaldia procumbens), dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana), and mountain avens (Geum peckii). Vollmer says the fellowship provides “validation that it’s an important project to work on,” in addition to opening the door to new resources.

Each species comes with its own unique set of questions, but all three are relics of New England’s glacial history—isolated on mountaintops thousands of miles away from their closest relatives. The reasons these plants are so rare include both geological and anthropological factors. “There’s the glacial history, and then there’s the human history that affects both their presence here and their absence,” says Vollmer.

During the 19th century, over-collecting was common in the White Mountains. The lack of photographic equipment and the rarity of the alpine plants in the region made them irresistible to botanists. Vollmer says there are more specimens of her study plants in herbaria than have ever been documented in the wild.

Though the plants are well adapted for the harsh wind and frigid temperatures of an alpine habitat, they’re highly vulnerable in other ways. “They’re very hardy in regards to the environmental conditions they can withstand, but super sensitive to human disturbance,” Vollmer says. “It takes years for them to reach maturity, and in the meantime they’re very small and easily overlooked—if you stepped on one, that would be it.”

Vollmer will collect samples of the plants and their closest relatives from the field and from herbaria throughout New England. She then plans to use genome skimming, a next-generation genetic sequencing method used in plant research to provide insights into evolutionary history and biodiversity. Genome skimming can be used both to see how closely individuals are related, and to give a broader comparison of different species.

“Greater genetic diversity typically yields higher population survival rates, and Hannah’s work promises to be useful for evaluating current conservation and management plans,” says Dr. Jolles.

Vollmer hopes to begin collecting during the summer of 2020.

Creeping sibbaldia
Photo: NPS/Jacob W. Frank via Flickr

Creeping sibbaldia (Sibbaldia procumbens)
Creeping sibbaldia is widespread in alpine habitats of the Northern Hemisphere. In New England, however, it’s a different story—creeping sibbaldia is on New Hampshire’s endangered species list and is considered one of the rarest plants in the region. So rare, in fact, that it’s only been found in Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington’s southeast face. Recent surveys for sibbaldia in the ravine have come up empty, suggesting that the little plant may have been wiped out from New Hampshire entirely and sparking interest in potentially reintroducing the species to the Granite State. Vollmer plans to use herbarium specimens to analyze the genetics of the New Hampshire population of sibbaldia and compare them with Canadian populations to determine the most viable, and genetically diverse, seed source for reintroduction.

Dwarf cinquefoil
Photo: USDA Forest Service, White Mountain National Forest

Dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana)
The beloved dwarf cinquefoil is on the federal endangered species list. It grows in just two locations within the White Mountains and nowhere else in the world. Because the plant reproduces asexually, the entire New Hampshire population may actually be a clone of a single plant—without genetic analysis, it’s impossible to know for sure. Vollmer plans to investigate dwarf cinquefoil’s genetics and compare the plant with its closest known relative, arctic cinquefoil, to find out just how closely the two are related and learn more about their evolutionary history.

Mountain avens
Photo: Gary Tompkins via Flickr

Mountain avens (Geum peckii)
Mountain avens is more locally widespread than the other two species, and Vollmer says it’s not unusual to spot its buttercup-like blooms while hiking in the White Mountains. But other than the White Mountains and a single island off the coast of Nova Scotia, the plant is found nowhere else in the world. Vollmer will compare mountain avens with a closely related southern Appalachian species to help inform Canadian conservation efforts.