Areas of Research Interest

  • Global Change Ecology
  • Terrestrial Biogeochemistry
  • Soil Ecology
  • Plant Ecology

Motivation and Research Approach

One of the primary challenges of the 21st Century is to predict how ecosystems, and the services they provide, will respond to perturbations such as climate change. This knowledge will permit us to manage and adapt to change.

Accuracy of prediction – the statement of what will occur in the future – is highly uncertain. Uncertainty is greatest when the system you’re studying is complex. And ecosystems are complex entities: physics, chemistry, biology and society interact to structure how they work. If we can reduce uncertainty, we can develop management plans that are specific and likely to succeed.

Our lab is trying to reduce uncertainty in prediction of ecosystem response to perturbation.

At the core of our approaches are two guiding principles:

  1. To test how well ecological theory (i.e. how we currently believe the world works) predicts ecosystem response.
  2. To test the validity of assumptions made in ecosystem models (i.e. the tools used to predict how ecosystems respond).

If you like, we take what we think we know about how ecosystems work and throw it against the wall. If it sticks, then we can have increased confidence in our predictions. If it doesn’t, then we need to revise it.

Ongoing Research

The general theme of all our projects is to understand how individual, population and community responses to environmental change affect ecosystem processes and properties, such as soil carbon storage.

We conduct this work in the lab and field, primarily in forests, grasslands and agricultural lands of the U.S.

Our research tools range from clipboards, meter sticks and paper bags, to state-of-the-art approaches for measuring stable carbon isotopes.

The best way to generate a picture of what we’re currently working on is to check out some of our recent manuscripts on the Publications page (pdfs are available there). But if you want the 15 second summary:

  • Investigating how soil microbial physiology and community structure, under different temperatures and plant-root inputs, influence soil-carbon formation and decomposition, and hence ultimately soil organic matter stocks
  • Quantifying how and why the resulting organic matter stocks relate to desired ecosystem services, such as crop yield, especially under perturbations such as drought
  • Delineating the niche requirements of prevalent, plant invaders, as well as their effects on ecosystem carbon and nitrogen dynamics, so we can model their distributions and the associated biogeochemical impacts as they further invade ecosystems
  • Exploring how disease, soil fauna and sub-surface bacteria affect the methane sink strength of temperate forest
  • Measuring urban forests to determine how they might improve the built environment, and whether they can persist there
  • Assessing how dispersal and recruitment – as functions of positive and negative biotic interactions – shape forest understory, plant communities
  • Exploring how plant inputs influence how soil microbial communities decompose organic matter inputs in future environments
  • Re-synthesizing scientific information to improve policy on carbon accounting in ecosystems

Why do such work? First, we enjoy it. Second, it advances knowledge of how the world works. Third, we hope that at least some of it helps motivate and shape how we act to improve the environment for us, and the other organisms with which we share our world.