Nitrogen cycling in the Mississippi River Basin

Collaborators: Laurie E. Drinkwater, Cornell University; Mark B. David, University of Illinois; Ryan E. Galt, U.C. Davis; Stefanie Hufnagl-Eichiner, Cornell University; Liz Marshall, USDA-ERS; Sieglinde Snapp, Michigan State University; Christina Tonitto, Cornell University; John V. Westra, Louisiana State University; and Steven A. Wolf, Cornell University

My dissertation research was part of an interdisciplinary collaboration funded by the Coupled Human and Natural Systems Program of the National Science Foundation. Our team included agronomists, ecologists, biogeochemical modelers, geographers, rural sociologists, and economists from multiple universities, as well as an economist from the World Resources Institute. We focused on ecological and social factors—at spatial scales spanning farm to region—contributing to the problem of nitrate leaching losses from intensive grain agriculture in the Mississippi River Basin. Nitrogen is an important element limiting crop productivity, yet nitrate leaching is the primary cause of the oxygen-depleted “dead zone” that appears each summer in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrogen pollution is also an important contributor to climate change via emissions of nitrous oxide. Joining this research team, and understanding environmental problems as complex social-ecological systems, inspired me to become a broadly-trained, interdisciplinary scientist.

My work, specifically, addressed three main questions:

1) How does agroecosystem management affect nitrogen mass balance on grain farms in the United States Corn Belt?

2) How do cover crops impact the cycling and retention of 15N-labeled fertilizer in tile-drained Mollisols?

3) How do farmers transition to agroecological management in the Mississippi River Basin?