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Solving Environmental Mysteries

Kathryn Barto, '07 Ph.D. Environmental Sciences

Kathryn BartoKathryn Barto makes garlic mustard out to be the bad guy in “The Allelopathic Potential of Alliaria Petiolata Against Other Plants and Mycorrhizae.” The crime? Killing off impatiens and endangering biodiversity in forests and woodlands in the midwestern and eastern United States. The weapon? Noxious compounds that attack fungi. The means? Vast underground networks of plant roots.

Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Barto is an experienced sleuth who looked long and hard before identifying the culprit. She re-created the scene of the garlic mustard’s crime in a plot of woods near the president’s house on campus. She dug deep in the forest floor to establish facts, collecting samples and bringing them back to her lab where she simulated the crime hundreds of times over. She’s building her case around evidence that garlic mustard kills the fungus that feeds 80 percent of plants in the forest.

“Just eradicating the garlic mustard, as hard as that is, won’t be enough” says Barto. “Part of the mystery is how we undo the damage the garlic mustard has wrought.”

She’s been on the case since she got her master’s in biology in 2002, and will have attained Ph.D. status in environmental sciences by the time she finishes. Her detective work has not gone unnoticed. This year she was one of 20 students nationally to receive a Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Fellowship for Graduate Environmental Study from the Environmental Protection Agency.

A self-proclaimed “black thumb,” who was raised in a military family and has yet to put down roots of her own, Barto is the founding president of Pi Epsilon, a national environmental sciences honor society started at Wright State.

As for her pursuit of truth about garlic mustard and the restoration of order in the forest, Barto hopes her patience will pay off.