Biogeochemistry sounds like the hardest triple-major to which one could be subjected. But to Hannah Naughton it’s the only logical way to account for how environmental processes connect with each other, and in turn affect agriculture.
Dr. Hannah Naughton, a soil biogeochemist, joins us this Fall as our newest professor at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture.
Biogeochemistry explores the physical, chemical, biological, and geological processes that govern both the composition of the natural environment, and changes to it. Living organisms are most affected by the changing states of water, and essential elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur, which move through the ecosystem in cycles.
Naughton seeks to identify the processes that confound environmentalist goals by unexpectedly releasing carbon and greenhouse gasses from otherwise healthy soils.
Dr. Naughton’s research is focused on how topography and hydrology, coupled with plants, can control whether soils act as a greenhouse gas source, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or as a greenhouse gas sink, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into forests, oceans, and soils.
Her dissertation at Stanford University examined the interplay between microbial diversity and soil chemistry, and how such interplay drives carbon cycling within soils. Her research has revealed that our understanding of how much carbon sequestration happens in healthy soils may fail to account for chemically distinct micro-environments hidden with soils.
“In different environments, major carbon preservation pathways are undermined, leading us to under-estimate both the stability of healthy soils, and their ability to buffer climate change,” explains Naughton.
“In dry upland soils, preserved carbon accumulates to concentrations high enough to overcome the energy limitations of carbon-eating microbes. And in wet lowland soils, metals play a big role in oxidatively breaking down carbon.”
Naughton already had a connection to UMass Amherst in the form of Professor Marco Keiluweit, who served on her dissertation committee while teaching at Stockbridge.
Keiluweit also focused on how carbon cycling and storage affects the environment. Naughton and Keiluweit have since co-authored several published articles along with their mutual colleagues.
Upon completing her PhD, Naughton served for three years as a postdoctoral researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, linking the terrestrial and atmospheric carbon cycles by studying how physical heterogeneity of soil environments affects local chemistry and the ability of microorganisms to decompose and respire organic carbon.
Her project improves our ability to predict microbial carbon processing, and to better extrapolate how such processing will affect both soil health and our climate.
As Dr. Naughton settles into her new role as Assistant Professor, she’ll likely be teaching Agricultural Chemistry, and either the introductory Soil Science course, or more advanced courses on soils. But for the first year, she’ll be focused on her research agenda, and how to extend opportunities for students to contribute their skills to her ongoing projects.
“I believe that real-world projects with stakeholders are the best training for students,” says Naughton.
She describes her classes as a healthy mixture of traditional lecture and text assignments, with “flipped classroom” breakout activities. The intent is to develop students’ confidence and skills for applying knowledge to real-world situations.
When asked for her impression of UMass so far, Naughton says that she “likes the school spirit, and the amazing array of courses, facilities, and student ventures” offered by the University.
As a newcomer to both UMass and New England, she’ll be adjusting to both the beauty of our area, and the long winters too. When not in the lab, the field, or the classroom, Naughton enjoys rock climbing, and music of all flavors. She’s an aspiring baker as well, which could potentially result in homemade cookies in class for some lucky students.