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April 18th, 2022

Lovenduski, Rahman, and Suding garner seed grants from CU Research & Innovation Office

Three INSTAAR researchers are among the recipients of Research & Innovation Seed Grants for 2022. Nicole Lovenduski, Shaily Rahman, and Katharine Suding will each receive funding to pursue an innovative new project with the potential to grow into future opportunities.

The CU Boulder Research & Innovation Office (RIO) and the Office of the Provost announced the 25 total awards last week. The Research & Innovation Seed Grants are specifically aimed to stimulate inter- and multidisciplinary work on research, scholarship and creative activity projects that either explore new areas of research with high impact and future funding potential, or pursue research, scholarship, or creative activity of high impact to arts and humanities disciplines.

Seed grants support projects that take investigators in creative, and sometimes high-risk, high-reward directions.

Nicole Lovenduski (INSTAAR/ATOC) will look for algae in the oceans by programming an imaginary satellite into an Earth System model.

Phytoplankton—algae that float in the upper layers of the ocean—not only form the base of the marine food web, but are important in Earth’s climate. Because they absorb and redistribute carbon, “They matter for the carbon cycle,” says Lovenduski.

Better estimates of how much algae is out there can help fine-tune our knowledge of climate. Techniques developed in the 1980s and 90s allow us to “see” algae in the oceans by using satellites to look at reflected light. But clouds obscure the view. And places that are the most persistently cloudy—high latitudes and right along the equator—often have the most phytoplankton.

Scientists are developing interpolation schemes, which are methods to estimating amounts of phytoplankton in a cloudy area by looking at the amounts in cloudless areas close by. The question Lovenduski’s research will help answer is which interpolation schemes work best.

For this project, Lovenduski’s team will program a pretend satellite, called an emulator, into an Earth system model. Using the emulator, they can test ideas and see which interpolation schemes work well, and which give less likely answers.

Lovenduski says, “It lays a foundation that we can build on to ask interesting questions important for the global climate system.”

Shaily Rahman (INSTAAR/GEOL) will develop geochemical techniques to help prove the existence of water on Mars.

Rahman will join a NASA-funded team laying groundwork for investigating the topic of water on Mars. Wave and delta features on the surface of Mars suggest the presence of water. The Mars Perseverance rover is gathering rock samples back to Earth, in the hope that they can help unravel the ancient history of Mars and ultimately water in the solar system.

Rahman is adding an innovative new geochemical component to the study, using isotopes of silicon to identify and interpret evidence of water-rock interactions in a stream environment.

“How do you study geochemical processes that happen on another planet?” asks Rahman. “Well, you look for terrestrial analogues on Earth that you think are similar to the environment you’d find on this other planet.” It turns out that Iceland has certain similarities to Martian geology. The state-of-the-art isotopic tracers Rahman will bring to bear can put some limits on what to expect about the degree and rate of weathering and mineral formation where water is present.

Results of the study may help guide what samples Perserverance collects. They will also feed into a proposal to acquire a sophisticated instrument to analyze these geochemical properties of rocks for the CU Boulder campus and Rahman’s long-term research plans.

Katharine Suding (INSTAAR/EBIO) will investigate the optimal mix of factors to boost ecosystem services of apple orchards in semi-arid regions like Colorado.

Rapid declines in biodiversity and soil health around the world suggest the need to manage agricultural ecosystems differently. Recent scientific advances show that adding diversity to agricultural systems can increase the natural benefits of ecosystems, called ecosystem services. Ecosystem services can include better crop yields, pest suppression, soil health, pollination, drought tolerance, and other benefits to the land, plants, animals, and people.

The trick is what kinds of diversity to add. There are many unknown factors in how to bring in diversity in a way that optimizes ecosystem services. Suding will take on this challenge by developing a data-driven planting plan for Colorado apple orchards.

Her team will focus on dialing in what combination of different types of apple trees and different species of plants grown underneath the tree canopy can best leverage key ecosystem services, like soil health, pollination, and reduction of chemical inputs and canopy loss. They will use the linkages they discover to design research orchards in Boulder County, a first step in building a network of research orchards throughout Colorado that can address these questions in the long term.