Ensuring Climate Adaptation Efforts are Beneficial for Aquatic Ecosystems

Bryson Mineart
Wednesday, April 28, 2021

This profile is a part of our consortium profile series, highlighting the people that make up the SW CASC—what inspires them, makes them passionate about their research, and gives them hope for the future. For this profile, Bryson Mineart (SW CASC communications student assistant and undergraduate student in the University of Arizona Computer Science program) interviewed SW CASC co-principal investigator, Michelle Baker, Interim Dean and Professor at Utah State University.

Michelle Baker’s journey into climate research is an interesting one. While pursuing her undergraduate degree, she was working in a lab performing examinations of cancer medications on mice with another student. This student left the lab, forcing Michelle to sacrifice several dozen (it was between 50-60) mice in the lab, something she was not happy doing. As a result, Michelle’s professor had another project for her to work on, one that required her to examine the effects of nutrient pollution on a reservoir in the Pocono mountains in Pennsylvania. In a way, Michelle accidentally became an ecologist.

Following her undergraduate degree at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Michelle went on to receive her Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque in Biology. Now, Michelle works as the Interim Dean of the College of Science and Professor of the Biology Department at Utah State University, and her research concentrates primarily on excess nutrients and invasive species in aquatic ecosystems. Michelle recently received a new lab, which she and her students share with individuals conducting soil research, allowing for a collaborative learning experience.

Michelle’s favorite part of her job is getting her hands dirty, which is what gets her out of bed every morning. Her passion to work is driven by outdoor exploration--collecting data, camping with her students, and getting to know these people on a personal level. The fieldwork is her favorite aspect of the job, but after having children of her own, she is unable to be in the field as often as she would like, so whenever she has the chance, she takes it.

Michelle has collaborated with a few resource management groups while conducting her research. She works primarily with the Utah Division of Water Quality at the state level, but she has also worked with the City of Logan, Grand Teton National Park, and a few forest service management groups.

Currently, Michelle has three graduate students that she advises--one of these students she just recently started advising during the pandemic shutdown. Because of the shutdown, Michelle was struggling to find suitable projects for her students, but eventually found one working with the City of Logan on possible mitigation and climate adaptation efforts on the Logan River. The Logan River was diverted from its original course for agricultural purposes, and it has several canals that the City of Logan is considering turning into pipes to aid in drought and flood mitigation. Michelle and her students are studying microbes and leaf decomposition rate within the canals to determine if the canals are providing an ecosystem service (e.g., aiding in leaf decomposition) or disservice (e.g., increasing greenhouse gas emissions). This research is an emerging area of research that is important for future climate adaptation. It is important to understand the potential impacts of adaptation and mitigation efforts, since at times, humans may interfere too rashly or too much to a point where mitigation efforts hurt an ecosystem more than they help. Michelle and her students’ research aims to address these important concerns, and ensure that adaptation efforts are leading to healthier ecosystems.