CSU Professor Matthew Wallenstein Awarded Prestigious NSF CAREER Grant to Study Arctic Soil Carbon Emissions

Colorado State University professor and research scientist Matthew Wallenstein has been selected to receive a 2013 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for $916,609 over five years. The award will support research and education on the vulnerability of Arctic soils to microbial decomposition in response to climate change. Wallenstein is an assistant professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability and a research scientist with the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, both part of CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources.

"This prestigious grant is a great tribute to Dr. Wallenstein’s pioneering work in environmental research and education," said Warner College of Natural Resources Dean Joyce Berry. “Our College is proud to have innovative professors like Matt who are making a global impact on today’s most critical environmental challenges.”

Wallenstein has been studying microbiology in the Arctic since 2004. His CAREER proposal focuses on understanding how increasing temperature alters the complex interactions between plant communities and soil microorganisms. The project aims to shed light on the fate of the large stocks of carbon that are currently sequestered in Arctic soils.

“The Arctic is a large and important ecosystem that is seeing some of the most rapid climate change on our planet, yet we know little about how these systems will respond,” said Wallenstein. “My hope is to improve our understanding of how the interactions of plants and soil microbes determine changes in processes that ultimately lead to the delivery of carbon and nutrients to the ocean and the atmosphere.”

Arctic carbon deposits have become a focal point for climate change research, as the frozen stores could be released by warming temperatures, further accelerating climate change. Additionally, the abundance of shrubs has been steadily increasing across the Arctic region, changing the chemistry of the Arctic soil.

Wallenstein’s work will help address how changes in temperature and plant litter chemistry affect microbial production of dissolved organic matter, and the decomposition of old soil organic matter. The research findings will enable scientists to better forecast and preemptively manage potential environmental challenges looming in the Arctic.

Wallenstein’s five-year project will involve both field-based and laboratory experiments, and will also integrate research into education and outreach programs for undergraduates and graduate students. His CAREER work is scheduled to include three field research trips per year to the Arctic, providing the opportunity for up to 26 CSU students to gain hands-on scientific field experience.

“The Arctic is such an important region to the health of our planet, so I am excited to give students the opportunity to experience it firsthand and to share their knowledge and global perspective of environmental issues with their classmates,” said Wallenstein.

Students will assist in collecting samples, designing their own independent studies, and analyzing soil data back in the laboratory. In order to qualify for the Arctic field work, students will be required to complete the new Skills for Undergraduate Participation in Ecological Research (SUPER) program, which will help to develop basic research skills prior to student participation in hands-on research and to recruit students from underrepresented groups.

To further expand Arctic learning opportunities at CSU, Wallenstein will also teach a module in a senior capstone course on Arctic soil ecology that will compare Rocky Mountain alpine environments with Arctic ecosystems and allow Arctic research participants to teach other students about the different biomes.

According to the NSF, the Early CAREER Awards are “the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.”

Wallenstein earned his Ph.D. in Ecology from Duke University, and joined CSU’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory in 2007. He then became a faculty member for the newly formed Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability led by Department Head John Moore, who has also partnered with Wallenstein on Arctic research. Wallenstein credits his department and collaborative research partners with his NSF CAREER award.

“The Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability was really designed from the ground up to integrate innovative, global research with environmental education curriculum, giving students the opportunity to learn side-by-side with leaders in the field,” said Moore. “Dr. Wallenstein’s research and educational initiatives embody the philosophy of the NREL, ESS and the Warner College as a whole."

In addition to the CAREER grant, Wallenstein was also recently selected as one of 13 winners from more than 750 entries in the 2013 BREAD Ideas Challenge. The challenge, part of the Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) program and co-funded by NSF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, asked participants from around the world to describe, in 100 words or fewer, the most pressing, novel issues facing smallholder farms – farms typically the size of a football field or smaller – in developing countries.

Wallenstein’s winning challenge was to “develop knowledge, methods, and tools to identify drought-productive microbiomes and facilitate their use by smallholder farmers.” According to Wallenstein, soil microbes help to release soil nutrients for crops and play a critical, yet overlooked, role in crop production and agricultural sustainability. As a winner, he received a $10,000 prize, and NSF is now soliciting competitive research proposals to address the challenges that he and other winners identified.