What We Do

Our lab investigates how plants and soil microbes mediate energy flow and nutrient dynamics in forests. Plants and microbes perform vital ecosystem services (e.g., carbon storage, water filtration, nutrient retention), and reduce the impacts of some of society’s greatest environmental threats. We use a complementary suite of approaches that integrate field observations with controlled environmental systems to address questions that intersect plant physiological ecology and soil microbial ecology in an ecosystem context.


Much of our work focuses in the role of roots, "the hidden half" of plants. Roots are often considered to be passive portals for soil resources. However, there is an emerging view that roots, through their activities and interactions with soil microbes, actively alter ecosystem processes. The consequences of root-microbe interactions are critical, as these processes link the carbon, nutrient, and water cycles in ecosystems, and have the potential to influence ecosystem dynamics and global climate change.

Three major themes of our research include:

  1. Root-microbial coupling of carbon and nutrient cycles
  2. The role of tree species and their associated microbes in mediating biogeochemical processes
  3. Feedbacks between plant-microbial activities and global climate.

Research Projects

The mycorrhizal associated nutrient economy: We're investigating how the traits of trees and their associated microbes influence biogeochemical processes in forests. We hypothesize that trees that associate with arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi alter nutrient and carbon cycling differently than trees that associate with ectomycorrhizal (ECM) fungi. We refer to this as the Mycorrhizal-Associated Nutrient Economy framework, and have been investigating whether AM and ECM trees contribute to unique “biogeochemical syndromes” in terms of energy transformations and nutrient cycling.

Drought impacts on carbon dynamics: Many climate models predict increases in the frequency and intensity of droughts in temperate biomes. Droughts reduce carbon uptake by vegetation, and thus reduce the potential of forests to slow climate warming. Droughts are also likely to impact soil microbes, which control nutrient availability and greenhouse gas fluxes. Our group is investigating the carbon consequences of drought in forests, and the degree to which species-specific adaptations to water stress (trees and soil microbes) influence the magnitude of this effect.

Biogeochemical impacts of understory invaders: Biological invasions are known to have highly variable impacts on ecosystem processes. We’re investigating the biogeochemical impacts of one of the most widespread invasive plant species in the eastern US, Microstegium vimineum (Japanese stiltgrass), in order to develop a framework to explain how and why invasion impacts differ across the landscape. Specifically, we’re examining whether species have the largest impacts where they are in greatest abundance, or where they function most differently from the resident vegetation with respect to nutrient cycling.

Plant-microbial feedbacks to global change: Forests slow global climate change by absorbing and storing CO2, but the extent to which these ecosystems will persist as carbon sinks is unknown. We are currently investigating the mechanisms by which trees and soil microbes mediate carbon retention and loss in forests. Specifically, we’re testing the hypothesis that roots play a critical role in stimulating microbes to release nutrients from soil organic matter - a process that increases plant growth, alters long-term soil carbon storage, and potentially affects feedbacks to climate.

Volatile organic carbon fluxes from soil: We are investigating the biotic and abiotic controls of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from forest soils. VOCs emitted from forests contribute significantly to the production of ozone in urban and regional environments, and represent the primary source of VOCs at the global scale. Aboveground plant tissues have long been considered the primary emitters of VOCs in forests, but recent studies suggest that roots and soil microbial emissions represent an important yet under-appreciated flux in these systems.

Climatic controls on carbon balance: We're investigating how intra- and inter-annual variation in climate influence carbon storage at the Morgan-Monroe State Forest. We're coupling micrometeorological (eddy co-variance) and ground-based approaches, including intensive measurements of belowground processes. Our research seeks to quantify and better understand 1) how much atmospheric CO2 is removed by forests, 2) what factors regulate productivity, and 3) how will the ability of the forest to store C respond to drought, warming, and rising atmospheric CO2?

Who We Are

Dr. Richard P. Phillips

Assistant Professor
Department of Biology
247 Jordan Hall
1001 E. Third St.
Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405
(812) 856-0593

My path to my current position was circuitous, but one that I wouldn’t change if given the chance. I was born in Boston, MA, and cultivated a love for the outdoors exploring the mountains of New England. After graduating from the University of Vermont, I landed a series of highly-rewarding teaching jobs: building hiking trails and developing environmental education plans for at-risk youth, developing science lesson-plans for special-needs students, and teaching ecology to first generation college-bound high school students. While I loved these experiences, I found myself longing to “do” science, not just teach it. So I enrolled in a masters program at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and conducted research on the effects of calcium and aluminum interactions on sugar maple decline. After a short stint working in a root physiology lab at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, I enrolled in a Ph.D. Program at Cornell University. My dissertation research focused on how tree species influence soil processes through their root and microbial activities. After Cornell, I worked as a post-doc at Duke University, investigating the effects of CO2 enrichment on root-microbe interactions at the Duke Forest FACE site. In 2008, I joined the faculty in the Biology Department at Indiana University.
Mentorship is a critical component of a successful science career. As a mentor, I strive to make myself available and accessible, and I try to create a lab environment/culture where creativity is encouraged, excellence is expected and successes are celebrated. My mentoring philosophy is to provide mentees with (or help them find) all the tools and skills needed to conduct independent research and launch their own successful research programs. I try to lead by example by being enthusiastic, risk-taking and high-achieving in my scientific endeavors, and respectful and supportive in my professional interactions.
I welcome inquiries from motivated students interested in how regional and global environmental changes influence carbon and nutrient cycling in ecosystems. I strongly encourage you to read through a few recent lab publications. If you’re interested in the “big-picture” ideas described in the first few paragraphs of each paper’s Introduction, our lab is likely to be a good fit for you. Our lab is a collaborative, highly interactive and dynamic group, with broad interests in community/ecosystem ecology, and soil biogeochemistry. Incoming Ph.D. students are encouraged to develop their own research projects. Although not a prerequisite, prospective students with interests in fieldwork and familiarity with soils or plant tissue research are encouraged to apply.

Lab Members

Meghan Midgley, Ph.D student

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Amy Trowbridge, Post-Doc

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Eddie Brzostek, Post-Doc (now an Assistant Professor at West Virginia University)

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Tanya Cheeke, Post-Doc

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Matt Craig, Ph.D student

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Benjamin Sulman, Post-Doc

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Steve Kannenberg, Ph.D student

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Adrienne Keller, Ph.D student

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Visiting Scientists, Undergraduate Researchers, and Technicians

Tyler Klingenberger, Technician

Luke Jacobs, Undergraduate

Jack Feighery, Undergraduate

Mark Sheehan, Lead Technician

Lab Alumni

Elizabeth Allaby (former undergraduate researcher)
Zach Brown (former lab supervisor; now sailing the world)
Rachel Gidley (former undergraduate researcher)
Alex Eilts (Research associate in the Dept. of EEB; University of Minnesota)
Frannie Einterz (former undergraduate researcher)
Jake Kirkman (former technician; now rocking the world)
Rena Kingery (graduate student at University of Washington - Islandwood Program)
Nathan Kleczewski (Extension Specialist in plant pathology at University of Delaware)
Christina Kuchle (Manager of Ohio’s Scenic Rivers Program)
Daniel Lehman (US Bureau of Reclamation, CA)
Marissa Lee (Ph.D. student, Program in Ecology, Duke University)
Ina Meier (Academic assistant, University of Göttingen, Germany)
Andrew Quebbeman (Ph.D. student in Ecology, Columbia University)
Anna Rosling (Associate professor at Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden)
Jennifer Swilik (former undergraduate researcher)
Linette Viertelhauzen (completed MS at Utrecht University)
Emily Wheeler (former undergraduate; starting Medical School in fall, 2014)
Huajun Yin (Professor, Chengdu Institute of Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Lab Life

Life in the Phillips Lab

Latest News

October, 2014: Ben’s paper on modeling soil C priming and protection at global scales has been accepted at Nature Climate Change

October, 2014: Meghan visited the lab of Stuart Grandy for two weeks (at UNH) to learn about characterizing soil organic matter composition using Pyr-GC/MS

October, 2014: Tanya returned to Sweden to continue her collaboration with Petra Fransson and Anna Rosling examining the role of soil fungi in C cycling in forest ecosystems

September, 2014: Eddie, Rich and Josh Fisher’s paper on the C cost of N acquisition is now out in JGR - Biogeosciences

August, 2014: A paper by Rich, undergrad Emily Wheeler and visiting scholar Huajun Yin is now out in Soil Biology and Biochemistry.

July, 2014: Matt received a grant from the Smithsonian Institution CTFS-ForestGEO grants program to quantify soil carbon dynamics at multiple temperate forest sites. 

Department of Biology
Jordan Hall Room 245
1001 E. Third St.
Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405
(812) 856-1563