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Meet PLOS ONE’s new Biogeochemistry Section Editor, Professor Lee Cooper

Join us as we chat with our Editorial Board member and new Biogeochemistry Section Editor Dr. Lee Cooper. Here, he discusses his research in marine biogeochemistry, long-running field campaigns to the Arctic and his view on the importance of Open Science.

Lee Cooper is a Professor at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, a part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences. His work in the Arctic is centered around understanding how the ecosystem and biogeochemical cycles are responding to climate changes such as the disappearance of seasonal sea ice, with approaches that include the use of stable isotope and other biogeochemical tracers.

Biogeochemistry spans a wide range of scientific disciplines – from soil science to oceanography to atmospheric science. Has serving on the PLOS ONE Editorial Board given you an opportunity to learn more about research outside of your own specific field?

LC: Oh, absolutely. Although as a biogeochemist, I work across many fields, I teach a stable isotope applications course for the University of Maryland, and one thing that is always a constant is how fast the field is changing, and how many new applications are published each year. Working with manuscripts that are applying modern biogeochemical tools can be very challenging because you have to know enough about the disciplinary topic, whether it is food web biomagnification or paleoclimate, or atmospheric chemistry, or whatever, that I think that the maxim that learning never ends really applies to handling manuscripts for PLOS.

What has been your favorite part of serving on the PLOS ONE Editorial Board?

LC:  One of the challenges of course is finding good reviewers who want to contribute to open access scientific publishing, and it is a common complaint among editors about how many potential reviewers will turn you down. I can appreciate that everyone’s time is limited, but on the other hand, if you publish in the peer-reviewed literature, you shouldn’t just have a reflex to turn down review requests because multiple people have taken turns reviewing and improving your manuscripts. But I like turning that whole problem around by searching out people who are underrepresented in the reviewer pool. Maybe they are from countries outside western Europe and North America, or they are early career researchers who names are not well-recognized yet. Identifying those individuals and learning about their research and how they might be in a position to contribute is a very satisfying part of being on the editorial board.

Tell us about your research interests. How does biogeochemistry play a role in your own work?

LC: I work in the Arctic, which of course is undergoing a lot of changes due to climate shifts and so we are seeing a lot of surprising things, fish not seen before coming north, sea ice disappearing and biogeochemical shifts in nutrient cycles too. My specialty is stable isotopes, but I also had the chance while working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1990’s to contribute to the use of natural and anthropogenic radionuclides in understanding cycling of materials in the marine environment. Stable isotopes are a tool, and often need to be combined with other analyses in order to make sense of the biogeochemical processes at work. So, when we go to sea, I am also involved in collecting water samples for chlorophyll and nutrient measurements, and have interests in dissolved organic materials and the links to water masses in the Arctic and beyond. Oceanography is in the end a rather multidisciplinary research endeavor, so when you mix in biogeochemistry with oceanography, you have to know a bit about most everything.

PLOS recently published a curated collection of stable isotope research. Can you describe how you use stable isotopes in your own work? What new information about spatial and temporal changes can these measurements reveal?

LC: This is a fascinating collection of papers and shows the breadth of research published in PLOS. These are also very state of the art papers, and I highly recommend this special collection for anyone wanting to get up to speed on what is happening in stable isotope methodologies and applications. Clumped isotope analysis for example is a new branch of stable isotope geochemistry that is looking at minor heavy isotope distributions—whether they are random or not, and it turns out that diagnostic interpretations that can arise from non-random distributions are helping to fill in uncertainties in paleoclimate and atmospheric processes. I use stable isotopes in varied ways, including looking at biogeochemical cycles of carbon and nitrogen in sediments in the Arctic and understanding how oceanographic processes influence them. Another theme is to use the oxygen isotope composition of surface sea water to understand how melting sea is influencing ecosystems in the Arctic. Sea ice is isotopically distinct from rain and snow that we normally think of as freshwater, but melting sea ice is also primarily freshwater, so the oxygen isotope composition of that melted sea ice can be distinguished easily in Arctic marine systems.

For you, scientific research has been a family affair. You work closely with your wife, Professor Jacqueline Grebmeier and last year your daughter joined both of you on a research cruise to the Arctic. Do you think that long field campaigns in remote locations are easier when the whole family can be together?

LC: Well, the pandemic has been a challenge for everyone, particularly for anyone doing field research because of the requirements for quarantining ahead of time and making sure no one was bringing the virus aboard a shipboard platform. So, costs in funds and time have gone up significantly and we would see less of our family if we weren’t working together. I know with all the disruptions to field research schedules, that the long absences from families have been hard all around. It also helps even in “normal” times when we get back to them, that researcher couples or families who share complementary research interests and who find ways to work together on projects can accomplish a lot. It won’t work for every case and for everyone in this situation, but I feel that when we merge individual goals and take the “me” out of what we do, it seems like we can get more done and use more tools to arrive at more synergistic results.

You began your career as a researcher in Southern California – how did you transition to research in the Arctic?

LC: I grew up in a well-known southern California beach community and was always interested in plants, whether on land in the dry local chaparral, or in the ocean, but I settled on studying seagrasses, which I like to say are the whales of the plant kingdom, as they evolved on land in the pond weed family and went back to the ocean with an odd set of vascular plant characteristics, pollen, seeds, flowers relative to marine algae. Seagrasses have odd carbon isotope compositions, which probably has to do with their evolution on land and submerged photosynthesis, but I got interested in the ecophysiology that is behind the stable isotope ratios in the 1980’s when I was a graduate student, first at the University of Washington, and then at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Some of the same seagrass species that grow in southern California also grow in Alaska, so to me, it seemed natural to take advantage of that biological connection between Santa Monica Bay, and Izembek Lagoon on the Alaska Peninsula where my advisor, Peter McRoy had worked for many years. Of course, there isn’t chaparral in Fairbanks, but moving south to north, Sitka Spruce grows from northern California to Kodiak, and there are hints of dry chaparral on Vancouver Island with the beautiful madrone trees there, so for me it was an easy transition, and Arctic research has been central to my work ever since. I came back to UCLA for a postdoc with a great advisor, Michael DeNiro, and he helped fill in a lot of knowledge about stable isotope applications, so I feel a tremendous debt for his mentorship.

You are one of the Principal Investigators of the NOAA/NSF funded Distributed Biological Observatory, a long-running Arctic time series. Can you talk about some of the unique challenges of operating a time series? Especially one that involves researchers from numerous backgrounds and institutes?

LC: We started out with interesting scientific problems about how and why the shallow continental shelf of the northern Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea is so productive but over time that morphed into studies of how the system was changing in response to climate change. So, like most people with time-series studies, I don’t think we envisioned a 30+ year time-series of biological and biogeochemical data when we started, but that is what we have ended up with through cooperation internationally with others working in the Bering Strait region. We can do more if we work with others and it has been to great satisfaction over the years to see what new insights arise from multiple, leveraged efforts we would never have accomplished just by ourselves.

In addition to open access research, people are now interested in ‘open data’. What do you think the benefits of open data are – and how does open data feature in your own research?

LC: One of the challenges is just getting the data out there for people to use and to make sure all the corrections are made and there is also a lot of work in fielding questions from people who send you emails.  So, I don’t think we have incorporated all the costs in open data access, especially for biological and biogeochemical data. Taxonomy changes, as does precision as instrumentation improves, and data entry errors all come back to bite, so to speak. But I absolutely support making data available at the earliest practical opportunity. This is now formally required in our US National Science Foundation grants, and beyond that it is the right thing to do so that we make the best use of data collected to help society in general or to understand and mitigate climate change in our case in the Arctic.

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