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Through funding from the National Science Foundation’s International Experiences for Students (NSF-IRES) program, undergraduate students from John Carroll University (JCU), New Mexico State University (NMSU), and Oberlin College (OC) have the opportunity to study gypsum ecosystems with world-renowned experts at three Spanish institutions–Instituto Pirenaico de Ecología (IPE), Universidad de Almería (UA), and Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (URJC). Spain is the international hub of gypsum ecological and evolutionary research, and our GYP-NEXTGEN project builds on a multi-year collaboration with scientists working to unravel the relationships between the unique chemistry of gypsum soils and the plants and microbes that are successful there.

Unusual soil types, like gypsum, are home to a significant proportion of the world’s plant diversity and offer unique opportunities for understanding basic ecological and evolutionary processes. Organisms adapted to unusual soils are often inherently rare and of conservation concern. Despite their global presence in arid and semi-arid regions, gypsum ecosystems remain understudied compared to other harsh soil types, yet host biodiverse endemic plant and biological soil crust communities on five continents. By further linking US and Spanish partners, this project will advance fundamental research questions related to the physiology, ecology, evolution, and conservation of gypsum ecosystems. 



Interested students should plan to apply in the fall semester. During the spring semester, selected students will enroll in a one credit course through their home institution. This cohort-building course will be held synchronously via Zoom once per week and for academic credit, providing orientation to the study systems, research environment, and culture prior to the summer in Spain. Through this course, pairs of students will be matched with a Spanish research mentor and select a topic, preparing a mini-proposal on their summer research project. During the summer, students will depart for an orientation and mini-conference, where they will meet their summer research mentors and present their research proposals. Then, students will depart for their respective research institutions for six weeks, returning to Madrid for an end-of-experience mini-conference where they present their results. In the fall semester, all students will enroll in a writing intensive course at their home institution, to write up their research and prepare presentations for future local and national conferences.

All applicants must be:

  • US citizens or permanent residents;
  • At least 18 years old by May 15 of the year of travel;
  • Full time students at their home institution and have at least one more semester at their home institution after their research experience in Spain;
  • Curious about science, learning about other cultures, and open to new ideas.


Additionally, applicants should have:

  • >3.0 cumulative GPA;
  • Completed at least 30 academic credits by the beginning of their trip to Spain;
  • Taken introductory coursework emphasizing evolution, ecology, environmental science, and/or systematics; coursework in statistics is recommended but not required; 
  • An openness to language learning, althougha minimum proficiency level is not required to apply. If selected, students should plan to enroll in a Spanish language course in the spring semester, particularly if they have little to no Spanish language proficiency.


Previous research experience is not required.


Each of the Spanish partner institutions offers a rich diversity of potential research experiences for US students. They all have extensive research facilities, a long history of gypsum research involving multiple scientists interested in varying aspects of gypsum ecology and evolution, and are located very near important gypsum outcrops in different parts of Spain. The three participating institutions are world leaders in the study of gypsum ecosystem ecology, with complementary expertise in floristics, conservation, ecological restoration, evolutionary and functional ecology, plant and biological soil crust community ecology, phylogeography, population genetics, plant-herbivore interactions, and ecophysiology of gypsum plants and lichens. 

Universidad Rey Juan Carlos is a public research university in Madrid that is located near the extensive gypsum exposures of central Spain. The URJC Biodiversity and Conservation group was founded in 1996 and is one of the most productive research groups in ecology in Spain (ranked #2 of Spanish institutions, 2021 Shanghai Global Ranking of Academic Subjects). Composed of 107 members (44 with teaching and research responsibilities), the program also hosts 25 PhD and 15 postdoctoral students, providing a dynamic environment where US students can interact with biologists at all professional stages. 

Founded in 1942, the Instituto Pirenaico de Ecología is a state-run research institute located in northeast Spain, near the extensive gypsum exposures of the Ebro Valley. It is one of the oldest research institutes of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the only one entirely devoted to ecological studies in mountainous areas. Research undertaken at IPE seeks to identify the processes and mechanisms underlying the biodiversity, functioning and structure of mountain ecosystems, from semi-arid lowlands (often covered by gypsum soils in Spain) to alpine summits. With over 56 highly multidisciplinary research staff members (ranging from economists and geologists to ecologists, molecular biologists, climatologists, and geographers), the institution has extensive experience in the study of ecological processes in gypsum soils. This vibrant academic community includes some of the most highly cited researchers in ecology and climate change. 

Universidad de Almería is a public university in the southeastern city of Almería and is located adjacent to the Sorbas and Tabernas gypsum exposures, which contain the highest degree of gypsum endemism in Europe. The RNM344 Conservation Biology research group at UA has a long history of research into plants growing on unusual soils, including gypsum, as well as dolomites (soils rich in magnesium carbonate). Composed of nineteen scientists, the group has interests in conservation, restoration, ecophysiology, and systematics of plants growing on unique soil types, particularly gypsum and dolomite.


IPE hosts numerous postdocs and graduate students and has also been involved in undergraduate mentorship, including a recent JCU undergraduate alumnus and Fulbright scholar. IPE/IRES mentors Drs. Palacio (who also coordinates the GYPWORLD project), Pueyo, and Tejero have made extensive contributions to nutrient ecophysiology, community ecology, and evolutionary ecology in gypsum plants (e.g., Palacio et al. 2007; Pueyo and Alados 2007; Pueyo et al. 2007; Pueyo et al. 2008; Palacio et al. 2014a, b; Escudero et al. 2015; Palacio et al. 2017).

  • Dr. Sara Palacio specializes in the mechanisms that plants use to survive in extreme environments and how these traits have influenced plant evolution. Her research ranges from high mountain peaks to the driest deserts on the planet, with a special emphasis on gypsum soils. 

  • Dr. Yolanda Pueyo studies the functioning and dynamics of terrestrial ecosystems, with a particular emphasis on grazed systems in semi-arid, subalpine, and gypsum environments. Her research focuses on the interplay between plants, soils, and human activity in determining ecosystem function, with the ultimate goal of providing recommendations for sustainable grazing management and tools for ecological restoration of degraded lands.

  • Dr. Pablo Tejero is the herbarium curator at the Instituto Pirenaico de Ecologia in Jaca, Spain, the most important alpine herbarium in the country. His primary research interest is plant evolution, adaptation, and systematics, with particular foci on mountain and gypsum floras.

As at IPE, the IRES mentors at URJC have extensive mentorship experience, having collectively supervised more than 20 doctoral theses and more than 35 Master's and undergraduate theses. IRES mentors Drs. García-Cervigón, Luzuriaga, Matesanz, Prieto, and Sánchez are URJC faculty members who are able to provide a wide variety of research projects ranging from community ecology and the evolution of phenotypic plasticity to phylogeography and population genetics (e.g., Escudero et al. 2007, Matesanz et al. 2017, Luzuriaga et al. 2018, Blanco-Sánchez et al. 2021, García-Cervigón et al. 2021, Sánchez et al. 2021, López-Rubio et al. 2022).

  • Dr. Maria Prieto Álvaro is a lichenologist interested in understanding the phylogenetic, taxonomic, and functional diversity of lichen communities in relation to environmental conditions, including soil factors. She is also interested in understanding how the environment influences the functional attributes of lichens.

  • Dr. Ana García-Cervigón is a plant ecologist interested in understanding the response of natural systems to global warming and human impacts. She uses dendrochronology and quantitative wood anatomy with Mediterranean and tropical dry forests, and with shrub communities from high mountains to semiarid gypsum environments.

  • Dr. Silvia Matesanz is an evolutionary ecologist interested in micro‐evolutionary processes that occur in plant populations of gypsum endemics, and how phenotypic variation is shaped by genetic and environmental factors.

  • Dr. Arantzazu L. Luzuriaga is community ecologist interested in species assembly processes. Her research spans annual and perennial plant communities in arid and semiarid systems, particularly on restricted soils such as gypsiferous substrates. She is interested in soil seed bank dynamics, secondary succession, and the implementation of functional and phylogenetic diversity as tools to disentangle species assembly mechanisms.

  • Dr. Ana Sánchez Álvarez is a community ecologist interested in how drought impacts species diversity, particularly in gypsum ecosystems.

IRES mentors Drs. Mota, Salmerón, Martinez, Mendoza, and Merlo are broadly interested in gypsum evolution, ecology, and conservation and have led many important recent studies into gypsum plant phylogeography, phylogeny, and floristics (Martínez-Nieto et al. 2013; Mota et al. 2017; Salmerón-Sánchez et al. 2014, 2017; Pérez-García et al. 2017, 2018). Dr. Mota and colleagues have also conducted key studies of conservation reserve design, including the ecological restoration of gypsum quarries and conservation of the unique plant communities that develop on gypsum and other atypical soils (Cerrillo et al. 2002; Mota et al. 2003, 2004; Mendoza-Fernández et al. 2010; Pérez-García et al. 2021; Bobo-Pinilla et al. 2021; Salmerón-Sánchez et al. 2021).

  • Dr. Antonio Mendoza-Fernández is a botanist, whose research interests include distribution patterns, conservation, restoration and management of the endangered flora in Andalusia (southern Spain) and in the Mediterranean Basin.

  • Dr. Encarna Merlo is a plant physiologist who investigates the stress responses of plants living on special soils such as gypsum, dolomite and serpentine

  • Dr. Juan Mota studies the flora of unique soil types, such as gypsum, dolomite, and serpentine, with research projects ranging from microbiomes to ecophysiology to entire vascular plant communities. Given that these specialized soils are derived from rocks that are often mined, much of his research focuses on applying our knowledge of how these systems function to the restoration of gypsum mines and the uses of endemic species for phytoremediation.

  • Dr. Esteban Salmerón Sánchez is a plant biologist interested in the study of endemic species associated with special substrates such as gypsum, dolomite or serpentine. His studies are focused on conservation biology; ecophysiology, phylogeography, molecular phylogenetics and conservation biology.


Below are example projects US undergraduates will participate in at Spanish partner institutions, with other potential projects possible, depending on student interests. Projects are grouped by the four major research objectives for the GYP-NEXTGEN project, with abbreviations given for Spanish institutions (IPE: Instituto Pirenaico de Ecología; UA: Universidad de Almería; URJC: Universidad Rey Juan Carlos) and research mentors [AL: Arantzazu Luzuriaga (URJC); AG: Ana García Cervigón (URJC); AM: Antonio Mendoza (UA); AS: Ana Sánchez (URJC); EM: Encarnación Merlo (UA); ES: Esteban Salmerón (UA); FM: Fabián Martínez (UA); JM: Juan Mota (UA); MP: María Prieto (URJC); PT: Pablo Tejero (IPE); SM: Silvia Matesanz (URJC); SP: Sara Palacio (IPE); YP: Yolanda Pueyo (IPE)].

Research objective 1: Investigate the mechanistic links between soil chemistry, plant elemental composition, defense chemistry, and phylogeny (IPE, UA, URJC). One of the most striking responses of plants to gypsum soils is the enhanced ability of gypsum endemic plants to accumulate high S and Ca concentrations in their tissues. Students will select from a diversity of projects investigating the ecological and evolutionary role of this mechanism on gypsum plants.

  • Leveraging a global dataset of plant and soil chemical composition from gypsum ecosystems to compare trends worldwide, probing the links between gypsum adaptation, plant ionic composition, and phylogeny, and investigating patterns among plants from atypical substrates (gypsum, dolomite, serpentine). PIs: JM, SP, PT
  • Analyzing S metabolism in gypsophile and gypsovag plants by evaluating differences in gene expression under different levels of S availability. PIs: SP, PT
  • Understanding the ecological role of glucosinolates in gypsum Brassicaceae in response to environmental pressures (e.g., drought, grazing). PIs: SP, YP, AS

Research objective 2: Investigate the processes leading to community assembly in gypsum plant communities and the roles of intraspecific trait variation, phenotypic plasticity, genetic variation, and competition in gypsum habitats (URJC). Students will focus on the biotic and abiotic processes that define plant community assembly in gypsum ecosystems, selecting from a suite of potential projects and PIs. 

  • Competitive response and effects of annual plant species growing in semiarid gypsum systems of central Spain. PI: AL
  • Unraveling the role of phenotypic plasticity, population differentiation and adaptive trait variation under ecologically realistic multivariate environments. PI: SM, AS
  • Disentangling rapid evolution on quantitative traits related to drought and fitness in a dominant gypsum shrub through a resurrection experiment. PI: SM
  • Understanding phenotypic variation and plasticity of wood anatomy in gypsum chamaephytes in response to drought. PI: AGC, AS

Research objective 3: Investigate phylogenetic relationships among key gypsum endemic taxa in the Mediterranean to understand trait evolution and genetic diversity (UA, IPE). Students will work to understand the evolutionary processes that have allowed some plants to thrive on gypsum, using a mixture of molecular and bioinformatics tools.

  • Resolving phylogenetic relationships of gypsum endemic species of Teucrium (Lamiaceae) and Gypsophila (Caryophyllaceae) to explore the evolution of plant elemental composition and gypsum affinity. PI: JM, ES
  • Investigating hybridization among gypsophile and non-gypsophile taxa in Helianthemum. PI: EM, ES
  • Exploring the species identities and phylogenetic relationships of cryptogamic organisms from gypsum and non-gypsum biological soil crusts. PI: MP  

Research objective 4: Investigate succession and restoration processes in gypsum landscapes (UA). Spain has a long history of gypsum mining and is a major exporter of gypsum. Gypsum ecosystems are now considered a priority habitat for protection by the EU. Students will work to evaluate gypsum ecosystem restoration as part of sustainable development in a changing world.

  • Evaluating plant community responses as a function of time since restoration. PI: JM, FM
  • Characterizing biological soil crusts across gypsum landscape successional series. PI: EM
  • Investigating primary succession in gypsum quarries. PI: EM, AM

International travel will be booked by the US university representatives. Participants will travel via economy class from their representative US locations (Cleveland for JCU and OC students; El Paso for NMSU students) to Madrid, Spain, where all participants will participate in a multi-day orientation session. Those conducting their research at URJC will move into their long-term accommodations, and those at IPE and UA will stay in local hotels. Following the orientation conference, IPE and UA participants will travel by train (IPE) or air (UA) to their research locations. Once in Jaca and Almería, participants will move into their long-term accommodations. All arrangements will be made by the US and Spanish partners for the participants.



Apply Now

Applications are due November 1. Applicants will be asked to provide information about themselves, including a brief essay about their motivation for applying to the program, as well as the names and email addresses of two faculty references. The GYP-NEXTGEN team will email a link for faculty references to complete; this reference form consists of a required series of Likert scale questions and an optional opportunity to write supporting information. Applicants will be evaluated based on meeting the eligibility requirements, their academic interests and accomplishments, their motivation for participating in the program and curiosity about science and other cultures (as described in the essay), and strength of their faculty references. Finalists will participate in a Zoom interview including a faculty mentor from each US institution and one Spanish mentor. Each year, six undergraduate students will be selected to participate in the program, optimally with two students from each US institution.



November 1 each year.

We are looking for students who are excited about science and conducting research, open to new cultural experiences, and able to dedicate themselves to the project components (spring semester course, 8 week summer research experience, and fall writing intensive course). Applications are particularly encouraged from under-represented minorities and first generation college students.

No, although applicants are expected to be curious about science, particularly related to ecology, evolutionary biology, or data science. All applicants must have completed 30 college credits before their international research experience in the summer.

No, although participants with no or minimal Spanish proficiency will be strongly encouraged to enroll in at least one Spanish course prior to their departure. All Spanish mentors are fluent English speakers, having developed part of their research careers abroad, and they frequently host foreign researchers in their labs. However, navigating daily interactions with those outside of the research environment and immersing in the local culture will be facilitated by openness to language learning.

After the interview and matching process has been finalized, students who have been matched to a project will receive an offer letter that states the research location to which they have been assigned. They will have a short grace period to accept or decline the offer by responding/replying all to the offer email. The US and Spanish mentors will be cc'd on the email.  Offer letters are typically sent by mid-December unless otherwise noted.

Yes.  All applicants will be contacted whether or not they receive an offer letter.

All applicants will be asked to rank their choices for research locations. The US and Spanish mentors will take these rankings into consideration, but final placements will be made by the mentoring team.

No, students will be paired to work with another student traveling as part of the grant.  Each summer a total of 6 students will travel to Spain with one pair of students assigned to each of the three research group locations.  The research hosts will help to arrange housing and orientation to the local area.

Participants will live in one of three locations in Spain–Almería, Jaca, or Madrid. All three are located near major gypsum exposures in Spain but vary substantially in their geography. 

  • The city of Almería is located in southeastern Spain along the Mediterranean Sea (elevation 27 m) and serves as the capital of the Andalusian province. The city’s population is just under 200,000. Summer months are hot and dry, with little to no precipitation during this time. In fact, Almería is one of the sunniest cities in Europe and a popular summer tourist destination due to its seaside location. Participants will work at the Universidad de Almería, one of the public universities in Spain.
  • Located in northeastern Spain at an elevation of 820 m, Jaca is a town of just under 13,000 people. It is situated near the Pyrenees Mountains and the French border. Summer daytime temperatures are warm (and sometimes hot) but nighttime temperatures are generally cool. Given its proximity to the mountains, it is a popular tourist destination for hiking and skiing. Participants will work at the Instituto Pirenaico de Ecología, one of the national research centers in Spain.
  • Serving as the capital of Spain, Madrid is also the most populous city in the country, with almost 3.4 million inhabitants. It is centrally located in the country at an elevation of 650 m, lying along the Manzanares River. Daytime summer temperatures are hot and sunny with low humidity, yielding cooler nighttime temperatures. As a major economic and cultural hub, the city of Madrid is a popular tourist destination. Participants will work at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos Móstoles campus, a public research university.

During the summer research experience, all participants will have access to relevant seminars and lectures; participate in local outreach experiences, including visits of US students to local primary and high schools in Madrid, Almería and Jaca; and engage in local cultural and nature activities, such as potluck dinner with families of UA, URJC, and IPE staff, visits to Ordesa National Park and the Pyrenees (Jaca-Zaragoza), Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park, Sorbas Gypsum Karst Natural Park or Sierra Nevada National Park (Almeria), and Sierra de Guadarrama National Park (Madrid).

All participants will be provided housing through the program, through apartment rentals, home stays, or university housing. Although participant pairs may share a housing site, each participant will have their own room. Housing will be within walking distance of the research institution or accessible via a short trip on public transportation.

Round trip, economy class airfare to Madrid and rail fare to each research location and housing costs will be paid for all participants. Additionally, each participant will receive a $4,800 stipend for their 8 weeks of summer research.

Each participant must participate in all of the following: the 1 credit preparatory course in the spring semester prior to their departure, the eight week research experience in Spain, and in a fall semester writing-intensive course through their home institution. Through the program, participants will be required to complete pre- and post-experience surveys, as well as participate in focus groups to help the mentors assess and improve the program. Participants will be encouraged to present their research at regional or national conferences. 

Each participant will be expected to work 40 hours per week for the eight weeks in Spain. This work may include time in the field collecting data or specimens, in the laboratory analyzing samples, or in an office setting analyzing data. Accepting the IRES fellowship means that you agree to not take summer online courses or engage in other employment, so that you can focus your efforts on your research project and cultural opportunities at your host institution. You should consult with your Spanish research mentor regarding your specific work responsibilities.

The program will be subject to any institution, state, and country restrictions. As of summer 2022, testing restrictions have been lifted for those arriving in Spain, if vaccinated, and testing restrictions have also been lifted for returning to the United States. US and Spanish mentors, in collaboration with institutional representatives, will continue to monitor any changes in requirements. All research activities will be conducted in person, although spring and fall coursework may be remote to facilitate participation by multiple institutions. International health insurance is available through each institutions global education office.

It may be taxable and you should report it in your tax filings. No deduction is taken on your stipend payment because it is not large enough to get taxed, but if you have other sources of income during the year, then you’ll end up paying some income tax on it later. Since it is a stipend and not a salary, you will not pay social security tax on it.

  1. Students must not register for any coursework during their program participation;
  2. Students cannot work outside of their research project duties and IRES program seminars, workshops, and social activities;
  3. Students must spend 8 weeks working in the faculty mentor’s research group with the project they have been assigned to;
  4. Students must meet the eligibility requirements to participate in the IRES Program, which includes being a U.S. citizen or Permanent Resident;
  5. Students are responsible for submitting supplemental materials, such as proof of citizenship, passport application materials, and IRES program contract upon acceptance;
  6. Failure to complete the IRES summer research commitment may result in the removal of the program and/or the stipend being reversed or partially reversed.
  7. Failure to successfully complete the spring course will result in a failing grade and removal from the program, and failure to complete the fall, writing intensive will result in a failing grade.

We welcome your questions. US mentors are listed by institution below:


John Carroll University

Dr. Rebecca Drenovsky,


New Mexico State University

Dr. Donovan Bailey,

Dr. Sara Fuentes-Soriano,

Dr. Nicole Pietrasiak,

Dr. Adriana Romero Olivares,


Oberlin College

Dr. Mike Moore,





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GYP-NEXTGEN is supported by the National Science Foundation under grant number 2153089.