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January 15th, 2020

Introducing Director Merritt Turetsky

Dr. Merritt Turetsky became INSTAAR Director on January first. She came to CU Boulder from the University of Guelph, where she was an associate professor holding a Canada Research Chair in the Department of Integrative Biology. A network builder, Turetsky has played leading roles in many international research networks, especially on carbon and permafrost, and is a senior scientist with the Bonanza Creek LTER Program. She is a skilled science communicator who spent last year as a AAAS Leshner Science Engagement Fellow, and who created and hosted a science segment on CTV’s Your Morning Program in Canada.

Turetsky is an ecosystems ecologist. Working primarily in peat-dominated, permafrost Arctic regions, Turetsky conducts research on interdisciplinary questions about Northern environments crucial to the communities living there, especially interactions between northern ecosystems and climate. Themes include wildfire, permafrost thaw, food security, and the future of the boreal forest. Her publications have made her a Web of Science Highly Cited researcher, ranking in the top one percent of her field by citations.

In this interview, Turetsky shares some of her leadership goals, what drew her to INSTAAR, and aspects of working in the North.

Q: What first drew you to INSTAAR?

A: I have known about INSTAAR since my very first year of graduate school. INSTAAR has an incredible international reputation, and has long been a world leader in several fields such as Quaternary science, geology, and polar sciences. Today the makeup of INSTAAR stretches into many other fields and across all continents.

INSTAAR continues to be a leader in cold region science, but many of us take an Earth System approach. And by doing so and comparing across different biomes, we get a real appreciation for how unique polar regions are and why they are changing so rapidly.

Another unique quality of INSTAAR is that there’s so much field expertise and natural history expertise here. People here have dedicated a huge portion of their lives living and breathing their research environments. We have place-based relationships with our field sites and with the people who live in our field sites. These relationships let us tell the stories that need to be told. Arctic and all polar regions are beautiful, rugged, fragile places that need champions, and we can speak in that context.

That’s personally why I work in the North. The people who live there view themselves as stewards of the land, and that value resonates with me.

Q: What goals and issues do you expect you and INSTAAR as a whole will engage in during your first months?

A: INSTAAR has an amazing culture—people really support each other. My first job as Director is to protect that positive culture. I've devoted a good deal of my career to building communities, research networks, and communication skills. I am eager to bring these skills to INSTAAR as we initiate a strategic review of our strengths and where we want to apply those strengths in the future.

One issue that many people brought up as something we’d like to work on is inclusion. Field-based science doesn’t have a strong history of being very inclusive. It’s expensive and requires a lot of support, equipment, and specialized expertise. Part of our challenge at INSTAAR and what we will be working on is reducing those barriers, so that all students at CU Boulder, all friends of science, and all friends of INSTAAR are able to experience the wonders and joy of field work with us. We work in the most remote areas, we know what we’re doing, and we can set the stage for making field work a more inclusive experience in a way that can be replicated across organizations. Because of INSTAAR's national and international reputation, when we set an ambitious new agenda in this area, other institutions will follow our lead.

I love the vision at CU Boulder of programs like Academic Futures, that will continue to focus our efforts around student education and interdisciplinary research. Here at INSTAAR, our research engine absolutely centers on teaching and mentoring students on important societal issues such as water, climate, and clean air. We work with students and our partners, such as government agencies (USGS, NOAA) to give students deep insight on these issues while also introducing them to a variety of skills that they will need to be the next generation of leaders and scholars. Connecting our strengths in interdisciplinary research with the philosophy of Academic Futures will be a major portion of our strategic vision at INSTAAR.

Q: You’ve worked a lot on the science of wildfire in northern regions. How are fires changing, and what does that mean for the Arctic and the rest of the world?

A: 2019 was an interesting year because of large fire seasons right around the world. Large Arctic fires popped up on multiple continents, which is pretty unusual. California…and now Australia. Wildfires are an example of how climate change is impacting natural hazards.

Q: Much of your research takes place on peatlands and permafrost. Can you share something surprising about these environments?

A: Peatlands and permafrost are time bending ecosystems! They form because they are legacies of past ecosystems—in other words, they exist because under some environmental conditions, biomass from organisms slowly accumulates on the ground over time. As such, they hold important information about the past that we can learn from. On the other hand, these ecosystems are extremely important to current ecosystem services. They often occupy important positions on the landscape for water purification—in the Arctic they are important for wildlife such as caribou, which in turn provide an important food source for harvestors. And finally, because these ecosystems contain so much stored carbon, they will be an important force dictating our future climate. So whether you are interested in the past, the present, or the future, peatlands and permafrost ecosystems should interest you!