National Science Foundation/USGS Internship Opportunities

Developing optimal post-fire restoration strategies to build ecosystem resilience

A widespread challenge for National Parks is restoring post-fire habitats to native states that are resilient to further fire. Especially in areas with a history of grazing, exotic grasses perpetuate ‘grass-fire’ cycles by acting as fire carriers between habitats, including forests. Grass-fire cycles are a problem globally, contributing to expanding exotic grasslands, decreased forest area, and increased fire frequency/size worldwide. Thus, to create resilience to fire in these landscapes, we need to better understand grass-fire interactions and how to restore communities that can resist grass invasion. The Keauhou Ranch fire recently burned 2,978 acres in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (HAVO). Previous work identified native species that quickly resprout and/or germinate after fire, however, it is not well understood which species mixes and densities are likely to exclude exotic grasses. Unfortunately, common restoration models across Hawaiʻi, including mass Acacia koa planting, can facilitate grass biomass. It is possible that more diverse/dense outplantings will better resist grasses, but this has never been explicitly tested. As a proof of concept, we also plan to test causal links between grass biomass, fire and vegetation recovery using historic aerial imagery and recovery data.


Link to PDF Version.

Project Hypothesis or Objectives:

Our objectives are to (1) Determine how the density and diversity of planting or seeding affects native plant survival and growth, as well as grass biomass and (2) Determine how grass cover is related to burn intensity and native plant recovery.

Duration: Up to 12 months

Location: Volcano, HI

Area of Discipline: Biology/microbiology/biochemistry, Climate Change, Conservation, Ecology/Ecosystems, Population Dynamics

Intern Type Preference: Any Type of Intern

Applicable NSF Division: BIO (Environmental Biology, Molecular & Cellular Biosciences, Biological Infrastructure, Integrative Organismal Systems)

Expected Outcome:

This project will offer insight into best practices for forest restoration not only after fire, but in the face of exotic grasses more generally. Outcomes are expected to be communicated with and eventually used by National Park Service Resources Management. In addition, we hope to elucidate threshold effects in grass invasion and fires, explicitly asking what cover of pre-fire grass will lead to widespread grass invasions and native plant extirpation after fire in different forest types. This will help direct specific management protocols. The USGS will provide the intern with the equipment, facilities, mentoring and other resources necessary to conduct a high-quality project worthy of publication in an academic journal. Most importantly, it is expected that the Intern will foster a collaborative relationship between the Pacific Island Ecosystem Research Center/Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the intern’s current and future institutions, potentially yielding long-term collaborations.

Special skills/training Required:

Background in plant ecology, soil microbial ecology, and/or fire ecology; Plant monitoring techniques; Ability to hike with equipment over varied terrain at elevations up to 7000ft; Knowledge of data management and statistics


The Intern will work in the Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center with USGS biologists and National Park Service personnel to develop a project that fits within our larger project goals but also relates to the student’s area of interest. Possible topics include plant-soil interactions, community assembly, priority effects, seed dispersal, plant competition, incorporating climate change predictions in restoration, and restoration best practices. Fieldwork could include monitoring natural and seeded regeneration plots in different vegetation types, monitoring passive and bird-mediated seed rain, grass removal experiments, shade-house experiments, and/or soil microbial sampling. The intern is expected to bring past experience, interests, and methodologies to the project. The intern will be responsible for data management and will lead data analyses and the drafting of 1-2 manuscripts for publication in high-impact scholarly journals. The Intern will be expected to attend at least one local conference/symposium to present results.


Stephanie Yelenik, Ph.D.

Research Ecologist
Pacific Island Ecosystem Research Center
Phone: 808-985-6440