Alix Contosta is a soil biogeochemist with a diverse academic background that began while studying philosophy and French at Villanova University. While that may seem like an unlikely beginning for her current research investigating soil biogeochemical processes, her research interests were able to grow and change throughout her time in graduate school and as a Northeastern States Research Cooperative (NSRC) Northern Forest Scholar 2006-2008.
Alix had her first experience with scientific research while working on her master's degree at Antioch University New England in 2002. It also was her first foray into finding her own funding and developing a research proposal in collaboration with the USDA Forest Service in Durham, New Hampshire. When she began her PhD at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) working with Dr. Serita Frey, she was interested in researching the simultaneous effects of soil warming and nitrogen additions on forest soils. Alix noted much research that focused on how a single disturbance affected soil processes. Instead, she took a more comprehensive look at the response of soil microbial communities to changes in both temperature and nitrogen availability, with the hope of gaining a better understanding of potential global change effects on soil microbes and the ecosystem functions they perform.
One of her tasks as a PhD student was to build a combined soil warming and nitrogen fertilization experiment at the Harvard Forest Long Term Ecological Research site in Petersham, Massachusetts. This experiment would allow her to address many of her questions about how soils respond to global change. NSRC Project: Soils in a Warmer World
Alix gained additional funding from NSRC as a Northern Forest Scholar, allowing her to focus much more time on her research than would have been possible if she had to work as a teaching or research assistant on another project. She also credits her NSRC funding as a stepping-stone in obtaining a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvements Grant (DDIG) because it gave her the freedom to pursue additional research outside of her original dissertation proposal as new questions arose.
One question that she pursued with her NSRC and DDIG funding was how wood decomposition was affected by higher temperatures and nitrogen inputs. Since wood and litter decay are important processes in forest carbon and nutrient cycling, any disruption to these processes can affect soil carbon storage and nutrient availability. In the end, she found that nitrogen additions depressed decay, while warming actually had little to no effect on decomposition. However, warming and nitrogen additions together sped up decomposition even faster than just adding nitrogen alone. This led Alix and her colleagues to understand that multifactor experiments can produce surprising and unsuspected results that would have otherwise been impossible to predict from single factor experiments alone.
After completing her PhD research, Alix was eager to work in more applied systems. She is now working as a post-doctoral researcher with both the Department of Natural Resources and the Earth Systems Research Center at UNH, with a goal to conduct further research about soil biogeochemistry in the context of applied issues. For instance, as we try to mitigate climate change, how can we plan development of our landscape to minimize climate change feedbacks?
With those objectives in mind, Alix is working on two multi-collaborator, interdisciplinary projects that could benefit landowners working in the Northern Forest. The first project is focused on UNH dairy farms and aims to develop a model for sustainable dairy management throughout New England. The goal is to create a web-based tool to help farmers or extension agents understand how their farms can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient losses through management of soils, crops, and livestock.
Her other research is focused on a multiple land-use landscape around Durham and examines how agricultural, forested, and residential land cover types can offset or contribute to climate change through carbon sequestration, greenhouse gas emissions, and surface heat fluxes. Her aim is for the research to be useful for landowners and policy makers focused on land-management decisions in the Northern Forest region.
While her work is certainly complicated, challenging, and time-intensive, she draws inspiration from the very mountains and forests in which she has been living for the past ten years. Using the White Mountains as her playground, she is an avid hiker, Nordic skier, and passionate home gardener, as evidenced by the dozens of canned tomatoes stored in her garage. Aside from ecological research, she carves out time for West African drumming and dancing and has been a devoted yoga practitioner for over a decade.
What does she consider an ideal job? For Alix, a dream occupation would be something that allows her to study soil ecology while hiking Franconia Ridge. In the meantime, she continues to work for the Northern Forest to understand the many roles that soils play in ecosystems and the services that soils provide to society.