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U of M professor named to National Academy of Sciences

Sarah Hobbie is working to understand the Earth’s broken carbon cycle and help individuals and municipalities reduce their urban pollution

May 1, 2013

Ecologist Sarah Hobbie, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences, has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the most elite and influential body of scientists in the U.S., and perhaps the world.

Hobbie, who was surprised by the April 30 announcement, said she had no idea she was even being considered. Nominations are made by a selection committee of NAS members and not made public.

"I was shocked, honored and humbled," said Hobbie, a member of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior (EEB). "There are so many other deserving people. I have a responsibility to step up to the role and make a difference. It’s a great opportunity to help society solve environmental problems."

The National Academy of Sciences, which was established in 1863 by an Act of Congress signed by President Abraham Lincoln, is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Scientists are elected by their peers for outstanding contributions to research. 

Broadly, Hobbie’s research focuses on how human activities such as land use, climate change and loss of biodiversity change the way carbon and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus cycle through the environment. Specifically, she studies how the changing global cycles of carbon and nitrogen interact with each other, for example, how excess nitrogen in the environment affects the decomposition of plant matter. Short-term studies have indicated that it speeds up decomposition, but her long-term studies at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in central Minnesota indicate the opposite, and suggest that nitrogen deposition from human actions may promote carbon sequestration (storage) in soils, slowing the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning.

"Human actions have changed the global carbon and nitrogen cycles in unprecedented ways," she said. "We can see the impact human activity is having on our environment, but we need to better understand how its biogeochemistry has changed in order to develop strategies to restore it. Long-term experiments at Cedar Creek are helping us reach this goal."

Hobbie balances her field research at Cedar Creek by studying pressing ecological issues closer to home. In studies of urban households, she and her collaborators are learning how routine choices (such as diet, transportation, lawn care, landscaping and pet care) can affect the local environment.

"We have learned that there’s a small group of households using more resources than the rest of the population, so we have to help them change," Hobbie said. The target group is households with higher incomes and larger homes. In addition, "a small group of households use most of the lawn fertilizer, more than they need to have a healthy lawn. Lawn runoff has a negative effect on local water quality. It’s a matter of understanding why people make the choices that they do, and figuring out ways to influence them to make more sustainable choices."

Based on her research, Hobbie urges her students to think about key consumption and lifestyle choices that will impact the environment for years to come, such as the size of the homes they buy, how far they live from their work, the types of cars they drive, and ways they can minimize air travel. More recently, Hobbie and colleagues have been studying the sources of nutrients that pollute urban lakes and streams, including street trees, and are working with local cities to come up with cost-effective ways to reduce water pollution.

Hobbie was the only U of M faculty member elected to the National Academy of Sciences this year and is one of only two women U faculty members; the other one is Margaret Davis, emeritus professor in EEB. Of the 12 living NAS members from the University of Minnesota, six have full or joint appointments in the College of Biological Sciences, primarily in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior.

After earning her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley in 1995, Hobbie joined the CBS faculty in 1998. She works closely with David Tilman, Peter Reich (forestry) and Stephen Polasky (applied economics and EEB) at Cedar Creek. Tilman and Polasky are also NAS members. All three are Regents Professors.

"Sarah has it all," Tilman said. "She is a world-class researcher, a dedicated teacher and valued mentor for U of M biology students. Her ecological research provides deep insight into how soil bacteria and fungi influence ecosystems. Her work on urban ecosystems is uncovering paths toward greater environmental sustainability. Election to the National Academy of Sciences is a well-deserved honor."

About the College of Biological Sciences
College of Biological Sciences faculty conduct research in all areas of biology, from molecules to ecosystems, which supports applications in medicine, renewable energy, agriculture and biotechnology. The college offers degree programs in biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics; genetics, cell biology and development; ecology, evolution and (animal) behavior; plant biology; microbiology and neurosciences. Admission to undergraduate programs is highly competitive.

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