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From the Field

Congratulations to E3B’s very own Professor Matthew Palmer for being selected as one of the recipients of the 2022 Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching!

Dr. Palmer teaches and advises students in several programs, including E3B’s undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, and graduate programs and in the Environmental Science and Policy program in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). He teaches courses in botany, forest ecology, urban ecology, herpetology, and research methods, often with extensive field and laboratory components. His research includes measuring ecosystem functions in forests, wetlands, and cities, the management of natural areas, and the conservation of biological diversity. He finds great joy in teaching and in helping students to see the natural world with a fresh perspective and to better understand the connections between nature and humanity.

“His course on botany has fundamentally altered the way I look at the world around me. I find myself walking a little more slowly on my way to campus from my dorm every day, just to take a look at the plants around me. Every day I come away with a greater appreciation of Columbia’s campus and the city around me.”—Diego Plaza Homiston (CC’23)

Congratulations Matt on this wonderful, well-deserved achievement!

The E3B department is delighted to announce that Dr. Alexandra Huddell has won the 2022 Don Jay Melnick Award!

Named in honor of one of the founders of our department, the Melnick Award recognizes outstanding dissertation work and other departmental activities.

Alex’s dissertation focused on how agricultural frontiers influence losses of nitrogen. Conventional agricultural practices in Europe, North America, and Asia lead to large nitrogen losses that cause dead zones, smog, and greenhouse warming. Agriculture is expanding along climate frontiers, occupying vast regions of the tropics that previously had little large-scale agriculture, and along management frontiers, with new crops and techniques. Do these frontiers exacerbate nitrogen leaks or mitigate them?

Alex first addressed climate frontiers, studying nitrogen losses in tropical agroecosystems. She studied field systems in Mato Grosso, Brazil, where agriculture is expanding rapidly. Her first chapter (AGE 2021) found that excess fertilizer in these agroecosystems leads to among the highest emissions ever recorded of nitric oxide (which forms smog).

Alex’s collaborators in Brazil had previously found that huge amounts of nitrate (which causes dead zones) accumulate deep in the soil rather than leaking out into waterways. Alex’s second chapter (Ecosystems 2022) tested an explanation for this high nitrate storage. She found that negatively charged ions (anions, like nitrate) stuck tightly to the soils in Mato Grosso, unlike the common situation in temperate soils (which tend to stick to cations instead of anions). This “anion exchange capacity” combined with the great depth of the soils (over 8 meters (!)) meant that the soils in Mato Grosso could continue to store nitrate at current levels of fertilization for tens-hundreds of years.

This nitrate storage in Mato Grosso was intriguing. Was it ubiquitous in tropical agroecosystems? In her third chapter (a meta-analysis; Global Change Biology 2020), Alex found that it was not. She found that tropical agroecosystems leak as much nitrate as temperate ecosystems for a given level of fertilizer. However, she found that tropical agroecosystems emit substantially more nitric oxide than their temperate counterparts, as she had observed in Mato Grosso.

Alex’s fourth chapter focused on a management frontier: perennial grains. Perennial grains are hypothesized to mitigate nitrogen losses compared with conventional agriculture, yet this hypothesis has rarely been tested. Alex worked at the SAFE experiment at the Lönnstorp Research Station, which grows perennial wheat alongside annual wheat. She found that her hypothesis was spot on: perennial wheat soaks up way more nitrogen than annual wheat, essentially preventing nitrogen losses (~100 fold lower).

Alex’s work is cutting-edge biogeochemistry. Fittingly, given the namesake of this award, her work matters for people and has clear management implications. In addition to her outstanding academic success, Alex was an excellent departmental citizen. She was deeply involved in DEI efforts, culminating in co-founding the Environmental Justice and Urban Ecology Summer Research Program.

Congratulations Alex!

Congratulations to the E3B students won prizes at the NEEP (Northeastern Evolutionary Primatologists) meeting at Boston University!

MA student Lilah Sciakey won runner-up for best podium presentation, EBHS alumna Sofia Schembari (pictured) won runner up for best poster, and PhD student Amanda Johnson received an honorable mention for her poster.

The E3B department is delighted to announce that Dr. Sian Kou-Giesbrecht has won the 2021 Don Jay Melnick Award!
Named in honor of one of the founders of our department, the Melnick Award recognizes outstanding dissertation work and other departmental activities. Using an uncommonly wide array of techniques, Sian’s thesis overturned a long-held belief. Prior to her work, nitrogen-fixing trees were thought to be a boon to climate mitigation. The idea was that their rapid growth and ability to fertilize the surrounding soil led to greater carbon storage in plants. In her first chapter, an elegant bit of mathematical theory, Sian showed that another consequence of nitrogen fixation – emissions of nitrous oxide (a powerful greenhouse gas) from the soil – could counteract the carbon storage effect. Her theory predicted that nitrogen-fixing trees could actually be worse for climate (compared to non-fixing trees), and under what conditions. Sian’s second chapter used a meta-analysis to show that the nitrous oxide effect predicted by her theory was borne out across a wide range of sites. Her third chapter combined painstaking, rigorous experimental fieldwork, lab work, statistical modeling, and an extended theoretical model to show that her theoretical predictions were correct in Black Rock Forest. These three chapters have changed the way we think about nitrogen-fixing trees and climate. Sian’s fourth chapter developed, tested, and validated a new version of the nitrogen cycle in the land model of NOAA’s earth system/climate model. This herculean effort will pay off for decades, given the centrality of NOAA’s model for climate science and policy.
In addition to her outstanding research, Sian was a phenomenal teacher, an excellent departmental citizen, and a strong voice for diversity. She is now revamping the nitrogen cycle in another earth system model as a postdoc at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modeling and Analysis.
Congratulations Sian!

Columbia has announced the creation of the Columbia Climate School, with E3B Professor Ruth DeFries named as Co-Founding Dean.

Ruth will remain a University Professor and Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development in E3B, as well as continue to play an integral role in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development at Columbia’s Earth Institute. Her world-renowned scholarship is committed to understanding the changes experienced by the planet over the course of human existence. She is also a public advocate whose dogged commitment has resulted in advances around the world concerning climate change, food insecurity, and nature conservation. And, importantly, she has been instrumental in the creation of several innovative Earth Institute programs.

Please see more about this announcement HERE!

Professor Deren Eaton wins NSF Career Award

Deren Eaton, Ph.D., assistant professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, has been awarded the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, the NSF’s highest honor awarded to early career faculty. The five-year $956K grant will support his proposal “Linking Phylogenetic Inference at Genome-wide and Local Genealogical Scales”. 

Eaton’s research combines computational genomics and bioinformatics with field-based studies of diverse and hybridizing plant species to examine the evolutionary consequences of hybridization in shaping the history of plant diversification. With the NSF grant, Eaton’s lab will produce new genomic data sets, and develop new software tools, to better understand how variation within and among genomes is affected by historical hybridization. 

“The size, complexity and variation among plant genomes presents a major challenge for comparative genomics, for which most tools have been designed to examine variation in human genomes, which are really not that variable,” says Eaton, who is also an affiliate member of Columbia’s Data Science Institute. “Now that we can more easily assemble complete plant genomes, we can begin to investigate evolutionary relationships not only among populations and species, but also in terms of how such patterns vary across regions of their genomes. The extent and speed with which plant genomes rearrange affects patterns of genetic linkage, which in turn can bias many phylogenetic inference methods. By developing new methods that accommodate variable genome structure and linkage we can establish better null hypotheses against which to detect interesting patterns, such as genomic signatures of hybridization.”

Eaton’s project will produce new software tools for inferring the evolutionary history of organisms from genomic data, as well as new didactic tools that will form the basis of a new course at Columbia focused on phylogenetic algorithms and methods. This research fits into a broader theme of Eaton’s lab towards understanding the drivers of diversification in global hotspots of plant diversity. “A major outcome of this research will be an improved understanding of the extent of hybridization across the tree of life, which is fundamental to our understanding of biodiversity and evolution, but also has important implications for conservation”, says Eaton. His lab will apply their new methods to investigate gene flow among endemic plant species in alpine regions of the Tibetan plateau that have historically been highly isolated, but now come into contact as a result of human development, land-use transformation, and climate change.

More From the Field

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Check it out: A piece in the State of the Planet from the Columbia Climate School details the work of E3B PhD student Pedro Ribeiro […] Read More

Columbia University invites applications for a Lecturer in Discipline position in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology. E3B represents broad interests in ecology, […] Read More

Congratulations to E3B Assistant Professor Andrés Bendesky on his award from NIH! Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award for Early Stage Investigators from the National Institute of […] Read More

The Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B) at Columbia University invites applications for a tenure-track position at the Assistant Professor level. Applicants can […] Read More

Please RSVP here: The Open House will include: An introduction to our Master’s and PhD programs Panel discussion with current graduate students Breakout rooms with […] Read More

Check out the New York Times article “The 1,000-Year Secret That Made Betta Fish Beautiful” that features the work of E3B Assistant Professor Andrés Bendesky! […] Read More

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