Graham Sustainability Institute

From Arctic to Algae: An Interview with Professor Rose Cory

Monday, August 14, 2017

Rose CoryFrom the August, 2017 Water Center Newsletter

Rose Cory is Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Science at U-M.

What are your current research projects?

I explore how fast carbon from permafrost is converted to carbon dioxide. Permafrost is soil, sediment, and rock that are frozen for more than two years. Permafrost is the largest reservoir of carbon on the planet, holding more than two times the amount of carbon than we currently have in the atmosphere. Atmospheric carbon acts as greenhouse gases that warm the planet. Carbon from permafrost doesn’t participate in the carbon cycle when it’s frozen. It’s ‘in the freezer,’ so to speak. Because the Arctic is warming quicker than the rest of the planet, it is causing carbon from permafrost to thaw and be released into freshwater streams and standing pools. This allows carbon from permafrost to be converted into atmospheric carbon, which is what causes climate change.

Collaboration & Support 

Assembling the right team:

  • Team members must value the bigger research question as much as their work
  • Learn about other disciplines and offer expertise in your field
  • Set ground rules and discuss terminology

Securing support:

  • Start with pilot efforts (e.g., gathering data, defining goals, and identifying partners)
  • Seek small grants and institutional support
  • Compete for larger project support from sponsors

Links:

Rose Cory Research Website

Rose Cory on Twitter

PolarTREC

The conventional understanding was that microbes convert permafrost (terrestrial) carbon to atmospheric carbon in arctic freshwaters. I investigated abiotic factors, particularly sunlight. It turns out that sunlight converts terrestrial carbon into atmospheric carbon in a significant way in the arctic. It’s responsible for one-third of carbon dioxide emissions from arctic freshwaters. This information is leading us to reevaluate the role of sunlight in the carbon cycle everywhere.

You’re also part of a team conducting algae research. Could you describe what you are doing through that project?

I am part of a multi-disciplinary research team looking at why toxic-producing algal species are forming in Lake Erie. Specifically, we are exploring how hydrogen peroxide may be playing a role in allowing toxic algae to outcompete non-toxic algae. Hydrogen peroxide is an antimicrobial agent most people have in their medicine cabinets at home, but don’t realize that this chemical is also naturally produced in all waters on the earth, usually by processes involving sunlight.

Our multi-disciplinary team of chemists, genomicists, and limnologists investigate the connection between hydrogen peroxide and harmful algal blooms. Preliminary research, funded by the Water Center, supported efforts to collect three years of data. It showed that hydrogen peroxide and toxic algae build up throughout the summer and then goes away. My role on this project is studying how hydrogen peroxide forms in Lake Erie, which we have linked to both biological processes - microbes - as well as abiotic processes involving sunlight.

[Data] showed that hydrogen peroxide and toxic algae builds up throughout the summer and then goes away.

These two areas of research address very timely topics. How do you ensure that your efforts reach both public and scholarly audiences?

I partner with PolarTREC, a National Science Foundation program that allows arctic researchers to collaborate with a K-12 teacher. The program brings a teacher to our arctic field station to conduct research with our team. The teacher gets hands on experience and “street cred” with their students by being on the front line of climate change in the Arctic. Following the field season when teachers are back in their schools, we work together to develop lesson plans that get distributed to other K-12 teachers to use via PolarTREC’s website and via articles in science teacher journals. These lesson plans include hands-on activities and videos for students. The program allows my work to have a multiplicative effect – by training a K-12 teacher, I can broaden my undergraduate education efforts teaching at U-M and my publishing efforts in scholarly journals.

This collaboration with K-12 teachers has been beneficial in that it changed how I communicate my research. I am much more mindful now of what I say, and how I say it. Being steeped in academic environments, you can develop blind spots for what is obvious and what is not.

Working with K-12 teachers helps me refine my language and explain things more clearly.

I know I’m answering questions differently and suggesting different photographs to take because teachers have given me feedback on what they understand and what excites them and their students. This has helped in communicating with journalists who come to our Arctic field site near Fairbanks, Alaska.

What are the rewards for your team engaged in multi-disciplinary research?

All of my research is multi-disciplinary. For example, on our permafrost research team, we have researchers representing four disciplines (chemistry, microbial ecology, limnology, and hydrology). We are working on the first multidisciplinary paper to lay the groundwork for how to test the effects of water flow and movement on the sunlight-driven release of greenhouse gases from freshwaters. This groundwork is especially important for carbon cycling and climate change in the Arctic.

Multi-disciplinary research allows us to move our fields forward in ways it couldn’t otherwise by combining fields that haven’t been combined before.

It has implications for others in the photochemistry field too. Some researchers study sunlight’s role in the breakdown of lampricides and pollutants in freshwater. These studies have not added hydrological factors into their research yet, so our approach has application for their research.

What challenges have you encountered with multi-disciplinary research?

Multidisciplinary research is not without its challenges, and each person on the team has got to be committed. For example, everyone knows that water flows downhill. But, what do you mean by a “hill?” One person’s hill is another’s mountain or speed bump. Carefully defining a common language for scientific terms or processes sounds like a trivial process, but it’s not with inter and multi-disciplinary research. 

Currently, our Lake Erie work is supported through an NSF Biological Oceanography grant. However, NSF would not have funded this project without the preliminary data we collected and a track record of collaboration, supported by the Water Center’s support was critical. This type of engaged research requires institution-wide support too.

It can be challenging to find a journal that matches the research well and reviewers who will take the time to understand what they don’t know. So reviewers must make an effort to understand different disciplines within the context of the paper.

It’s incredibly hard to do multi-disciplinary work. However, the major breakthroughs — whether it is climate change or water quality — are at the interfaces of where these fields come together. We are fortunate that at U-M, there is an understanding of the importance of multi-disciplinary research.