The Big Picture

Scientists are often asked by non-scientists to explain the purpose of their research. The “big picture” or “elevator speech” as it is sometimes known is the bane of all grad students. Seeing as most funding for academic research comes from agencies that are ultimately funded by tax payers, scientists are expected to be able to provide a concise and understandable explaination of their work to a layperson on the spot. I think this is reasonable. Now that I’ve been working in the Rocha lab for a couple months, I have amassed a basic understanding of what we do and will try to convey that information here. Hopefully by the end of it you will be stoked about the research and happy that your tax dollars are supporting it.

Soils in the arctic tundra, it turns out, contain huge amounts of carbon. Much more so than all of the carbon in our entire atmosphere! Both scientists as well as resposible world citizens should know that carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide in out atmosphere, is one of the main drivers of climate change. There are worries that disturbance events in the arctic, such as wildfires, could release catastrophic amounts of carbon dioxide from the soil into the atmosphere and accelerate climate change. Rising temperatures are leading to a greater number of arctic wildfires than ever before, which releases more carbon, which in turn leads to higher temperatures. As you can see, we have a positive feedback loop that could be very problematic. So studying carbon cycling in the arctic is akin to studying a live bomb of which we have very little understanding of how it works.

This is what our lab does. We use instruments called eddy covariance flux towers (more on this as I learn) that measure carbon dioxide released from soils. I will be setting these flux towers up in the North Slope of Alaska at the site where a massive wildfire occurred in 2007 (the largest one on record in the area in over 6000 years). Some of the questions that interest us include: How fast does vegatation regrow following a disturbance event (known as secondary succession)? How does this vegetation affect the soil’s ability to retain carbon? What impacts are there when frozen soils thaw during wildfires? Ultimately this information can be used to improve climate change predictions.

The North Slope = lots of stored carbon
The North Slope = lots of stored carbon

The mastermind behind all of this is Dr. Adrian Rocha, a new professor at Notre Dame. My job is to take care of the small picture stuff that makes this research possible like buidling robots and flying in helicopters. In the next post I’ll fill you in on the exciting day to day tasks that a lab manager does.

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