Down to Earth: USU Doctoral Student Receives Ecological Society of America Honor

by Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Utah State University
February 11, 2022

Much of Utah State University doctoral student Jessica Murray’s field experience has been spent high above the ground — studying carbon cycling from soils some 80 feet up in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve tree canopy of Costa Rica, to be exact. With recent research, Murray is exploring “normal, on-the-ground soils” within the mountainous Central American nation’s tropical alpine ecosystem — known as páramo — within Chirripó National Park. Travel to her field sites begins with a six-hour car ride, followed by a seven-hour trek on foot to the park’s field station, which is her base, before further challenging hikes to remote research areas.

National recognition from the Ecological Society of America affords the ecologist yet another, quite different form of field experience as a recipient of the society’s Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award. As part of the 2022 nationwide cohort of 44 scholars, the Lawrenceville, Georgia native will meet with a to-be-determined member of Utah’s national congressional delegation to discuss the importance of federal investments in the biological and ecological sciences.

Murray is the first Aggie to receive the award, which was established about a decade ago to honor McCarter’s efforts as ESA executive director, in promoting the society’s engagement with policymakers and the public.

“I haven’t much experience in political or policy-making processes, but my research has fueled my concern about climate change,” says Murray, who is mentored by former USU faculty member Bonnie Waring, now with England’s Imperial College London, and John Stark, professor in USU’s Department of Biology and the Ecology Center. “We tend to think of trees and forests as the main reservoirs of carbon storage, but even more carbon is stored in the world’s soils. Climate change is accelerating the loss of soil carbon throughout the globe, which could accelerate climate change even more.”

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