Phyllis D. Coley, PhD is a Distinguished Professor, Emerita in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah. She earned her BS in ecology and was in the first graduating class at the newly formed Hampshire College in Amherst, MA in 1974. She obtained her PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Chicago, IL in 1981. After NSF and Smithsonian postdoctoral fellowships in Panama she joined the Biology Department at the University of Utah, UT in 1982. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Ecological Society of America and the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation. Awards include the Mercer Award and the Cooper Award from the Ecological Society of America, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Myriad Award from Myriad Genetics and the Utah Governor’s Medal for Science.

Research Interests

Dr. Coley conducts research on plant anti-herbivore defenses in rainforests throughout the tropics. As plants and the insects that eat them account for fifty percent of the terrestrial biomass on earth, these interactions are a key driver of ecology and evolution in both groups. She examined the costs and benefits of investment in defenses and proposed the Resource Availability Theory to explain variation in defenses across plants with different life histories. She also combined phylogenetic and metabolomic approaches to understand how novel defensive profiles evolve and the consequences for co-evolution with herbivores as well as the pivotal role of herbivores in maintaining the high diversity of tropical forests. She used this basic research to establish a project in Panama using ecological insight to drive discovery of pharmaceuticals. The goal was to promote conservation by providing immediate benefits from nature in terms of opportunities for research and education to Panamanian scientists. It has been heralded as a model for benefit sharing and conducting research in biodiverse and developing nations.

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Primary Section

Section 63: Environmental Sciences and Ecology

Secondary Section

Section 27: Evolutionary Biology