Field research at Jasper Ridge

Soil carbon dynamics

Briana Swette

Briana Swette, an Earth Systems major, is working on research about rooting beneath the soil at Jasper Ridge's famed climate change experiment. Photo: Jan Brown

Along with Anderegg, Darcy McRose also won a Firestone award last year for her honors thesis at Jasper Ridge. She investigated the amount of carbon stored in the soil in the well-known Jasper Ridge global change experiment, which has been running for 10 years. It keeps track of how different levels of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, heat and precipitation affect photosynthesis and other ecosystem properties.
McRose used six years’ worth of data and found there was no observable carbon content change under a higher CO2 environment.

An Earth systems major, McRose did her thesis in the Goldman Honors Program, run by the Woods Institute.

“So almost by definition it was multidisciplinary,” she said. Rosamond Naylor and Walter Falcon, directors of the program, “forced me to go from the science to a more global perspective.”

Her undergraduate journey was as unexpected as that of her colleagues.

“I started off being interested in community organizing. Then I took an anthropology class that tied together all my interests and showed me I could do the social things through science. It was kind of scary to make that switch.”

The class in question was Conservation and Evolutionary Ecology, taught by Doug Bird. It addresses the interaction between people and their environment, which involves many human decisions, all with material consequences. Studying those decisions thus illuminates environmental problems.

“I hope the kind of work I do provides strategies for thinking and acting: What will it actually take to solve perpetual problems of collective action when individuals face very real consequences of their decisions about survival and reproduction?” Bird said, reflecting on McRose’s journey from community organizing to anthropology to science. “We need to understand why human resource use varies under particular circumstances. This just can’t be done along a unidisciplinary front. And, I’d argue, that’s what makes the problems and approach so interesting to students like Darcy, who are interested in both action and the environment.”

McRose first was a human biology major (her adviser was Carol Boggs, a butterfly colleague of Christensen’s) and ended up in Earth systems, where she is now pursuing a co-terminal degree.

Another Earth systems student working at Jasper Ridge is Briana Swette. She, too, is conducting her project at the site of the climate change experiment. The experiment comprises more than 100 plots in which tests are demonstrating how a typical grassland ecosystem responds to environmental changes. Her objective is to quantify the growth of new roots in the plots, using a tiny rotating scanner inserted into tubes beneath the soil.

And she, too, never expected to be where she is.

“I don’t think of myself as a scientist,” she said. “Originally I wanted to be a journalist. But instead, I’ll study what I wanted to write about,” which is agriculture, food and the environment. She’ll be studying life sciences in Norway this fall, a country where, she said, farmers are “very educated.”