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An Interview with Biogeochemist Alex Cory

Alex Cory is a final-year PhD student in the department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science at Florida State University. She received her B.A. in geology (and music) at Lawrence University before pursuing a post-bachelors Research Associateship at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Before entering grad school, she took a one-year break to travel around Southeast Asia. While in Indonesia, she witnessed some of the destructive impacts that agriculture was having on the natural landscape. The beautiful, diverse forests of Indonesia were being ripped up and replaced with rows of palm trees. The locals hated it. She would later come to learn that these alterations cause devastating effects on the climate because peatlands scrub C out of the atmosphere (and palm plantations do not). Now, as a PhD student, her job is to understand what drives the changes in peatland-climate interactions.

In this interview, we chat with Alex about her recent publication in PLOS ONE, life as an early career researcher, and the important role that peatlands play in sequestering CO2.

Your recent paper focuses on the biogeochemical components and processes involved in peatlands. Can you explain the role of peatlands in global climate change and why these carbon sinks (reservoirs that store carbon) are so critical? How much carbon do these bogs sequester?

AC: As carbon sinks, peatlands have a critical influence on the climate. Their ability to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere has facilitated the formation of mind-boggling amounts of organic carbon (60% – 134% of the current atmospheric carbon pool!). Throughout most of the Holocene, this C sink function enabled peatlands to effectively cool the planet. Unfortunately, this cooling effect has lessened over the last ~150 years due to a combination of rising decomposition rates and, in some regions, increasing production of methane (which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). This phenomenon can be attributed to rising temperatures and permafrost thaw (among other factors). Determining the extent of this change (and future change) is a top priority to peatland researchers like myself.

You have mentioned that in your travels you’ve witnessed the impact of deforestation on local communities. Do you think that industry-related climate change disproportionately affects certain regions and communities more than others?

AC: Absolutely. Communities with less money/fewer resources are typically the last to receive aid after extreme weather events (such as hurricanes), which are expected to increase in frequency as a result of climate change. Poorer communities also tend to have higher rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which can be exacerbated by heat waves. Combined with the dearth of healthcare among these communities, these effects can be devastating. These are just a few examples of the inequities at play.

You’re investigating a number of really important questions regarding Earth’s carbon stores, but the day to day experimentation involves a lot of tedious processing. Did you expect so much of your PhD to entail sampling and filtering?

AC: I spent two years as a research associate before entering graduate school, wherein most of my day-to-day work involved weighing out samples on the microgram scale. (I listened to an impressive number of audiobooks during this time.) Because of this experience, the tedious aspects of lab-work did not come as a surprise to me. While they certainly do tend to lose their charm over time, I definitely find myself missing the lab more and more now that I am spending most of my time at a computer! I would advise anyone in the early stages of their career to embrace the hands-on nature of their work.

Alex in the lab in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image courtesy of Alex Cory.

Your latest work found that soluble phenolic compounds may be a crucial reason that peat bogs are so recalcitrant (unchanging). Can you tell us a bit more about these important findings?

AC: While the ability for soluble phenolics to inhibit enzyme activity is well established, the importance of phenolics in regulating carbon mineralization in peatlands has been heavily contested. For example, some studies demonstrated that removal of phenolics resulted in significantly elevated rates of enzyme hydrolysis (which is the first stage of peat decomposition). Others, on the other hand, found no significant relationship between phenolic content and rates of hydrolysis.

In our study, we found evidence that the regulatory impact of soluble phenolics varies significantly between bogs and fens (which are two types of peatland habitats). Bogs have a topic of interest for decades due to their extraordinary recalcitrance—which becomes evident when you take a look at the perfectly preserved facial features of humans bodies that were buried in the bog subsurface thousands of years ago. This recalcitrance, combined with the generally high (relative to other peatland habitats) CO2/CH4 production ratios significantly lowers the global warming potential of bogs relative to fens.

In our study, we determined that soluble phenolics could contribute to bogs’ recalcitrance and relatively high CO2/CH4 ratios—at least at our study site (Stordalen Mire, Sweden).

Our evidence for this claim was threefold. First, we noted higher soluble phenolic content in the bog. Second, we found that removal of soluble phenolics results in a far more significant uptick in bog carbon mineralization rates. Third—we noted that while the impact of soluble phenolic content on methane production was negligible in the fen, it was significant in the bog.

A typical sample incubation. Image courtesy of Alex Cory.

You have mentioned that you are part of a research institute called EMERGE. Can you tell us more about that?

AC: EMERGE (“EMergent Ecosystem Response to ChanGE”) is an NSF-funded research institute that works to understand (and predict) how ecosystems will respond to change. This is a tall order given the complexity of such interactions. To effectively carry it out, EMERGE brings in a diverse group of scientists, with expertise in 15 different subdisciplines (including, but not limited to biogeochemistry, ecology, remote sensing, modeling, and genetics). We all work on our ability to (1) communicate outside our areas of expertise and (2) function as effective team members.

One of the coolest aspects of EMERGE (in my opinion) is that we all get to learn about current research on team science (the study of teams). Through EMERGE workshops/meetings, I’ve learned that trust is a cornerstone to team success. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a number of activities aimed at building that trust. These experiences, combined with the supportive culture within EMERGE, have helped me to speak up more at meetings and enjoy my work that much more.

We have to ask! In addition to your undergraduate and PhD studies in the Geosciences, you have a degree in Music. Can you tell us more about that? Do you see any parallels between music and science?

AC: What I love most about music and science is that they both offer the opportunity to explore one’s curiosity. For me, this always comes back to the mysteries of nature. The more analytical approach that I employ during scientific exploration is nicely complemented by the world-building narrative that I get to create when writing songs. Engaging in both strengthens my drive to understand (and even help protect) natural habitats.

Here is an example of one of my favorite nature-based songs: “Trees are like icebergs, they sit on a mirror, reflecting the secrets beneath the veneer..”

As you may know, PLOS is a huge proponent of Open Science – including Open Access publications, open peer review, open data/code sharing, etc. How do you think Open Science plays a role in Earth Sciences and Climate research?

AC: The aims of climate research—to predict future change and discern viable methods to prepare for that change—can only be effectively approached if the community of climate researchers are able to stay up to date on one another’s research. Open Science does just that! It prevents redundant research (which wastes valuable time and resources) AND offers new questions/ideas for the research community. For these reasons, I am a HUGE proponent of open science. Thank you PLOS One for being a part of that movement!

Citation: Cory AB, Chanton JP, Spencer RGM, Ogles OC, Rich VI, McCalley CK, et al. (2022) Quantifying the inhibitory impact of soluble phenolics on anaerobic carbon mineralization in a thawing permafrost peatland. PLoS ONE 17(2): e0252743. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0252743

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

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