Andrew Reinmann’s $1 Million NSF CAREER Grant Project Aims to Understand Fragmented Forests and to Reduce Barriers to Inclusion in Environmental Studies

Professor Andrew Reinmann (GC/Hunter, Earth and Environmental Sciences/Geography and Environmental Science), whose lab is part of the Environmental Sciences Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center at the Graduate Center, was recently awarded a $1 million, five-year National Science Foundation CAREER Grant for a project that will study how temperate forests respond to climate change and “fragmentation” — becoming broken up into smaller areas by agriculture and development. Temperate forests remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than any other terrestrial ecosystem, yet they are also the most fragmented, which may increase their vulnerability to climate change and put their ability to serve as the planet’s lungs at risk.

Reinmann also has a secondary goal in his project: addressing significant barriers to inclusion in environmental biology. He recently spoke to the Graduate Center about his work.

The Graduate Center: What advice would you give to junior faculty members who are looking to obtain a CAREER grant?

Reinmann: In writing this proposal, and getting feedback from more senior colleagues who have gone through this process, I learned that the integration of research and education is really important. A lot of academics and scientists are used to focusing on the research part, and sometimes how that interacts and engages with the education components of our career is a little less clear to us, or maybe doesn’t come as easy as the research piece.

I would encourage folks who are thinking about applying for grants to take that step back and view it from a more holistic perspective, and not just view it as: What’s the key important scientific question that you want to ask? Of course, that’s essential, but for this grant program, and arguably for all of our research, we should consider how asking and answering that scientific question could also be used as a tool for educating future generations of scientists.

GC: One of your project’s goals is to address barriers to inclusion in environmental biology. How to you plan to reach out to students from groups that are less represented in your field?

Reinmann: As an undergraduate, I went to SUNY Binghamton, a state school. But we had a really wonderful nature preserve right on our campus, so we didn’t need to go anywhere to get experience learning about nature, conducting ecological research. We had a living laboratory, and that was my entry point to science.

One of the reasons that I chose to come to CUNY is because of CUNY’s mission to provide a great education to students who might not have other opportunities for higher education, and to elevate people out of poverty. Being able to work with a diverse group of students has been wonderful for me; I learn a lot from that. And I hope to be able to give back to those students as well. In my time here, I’ve learned a whole lot about some of the barriers our students face in pursuing a career in science.

My vision is to have CUNY not just be this amazing force for elevating people out of poverty, but also an amazing force for helping to diversify what science looks like. And I think a key to that is getting students early in their college education exposed to ecological research.

Many students don’t have the luxury of being able to volunteer in Alaska. Many of our students are working part or full time while going to college, and if they’re going to spend time doing research, it can’t compete with their financial needs. Also, many live with their families and have caretaking roles that keep them from being able to spend extended amounts of time away from home, but a lot of ecological research happens outside of New York City. And then, of course, most of our long-term ecological research sites are in sparsely populated, rural areas that are mostly white. That’s different than what our student body looks like, and it can be difficult for someone who’s spent their whole life in New York City to “see” themselves in those locations and feel comfortable applying for a job in a rural, remote area.

I hope to use this recently funded project to make it easier for our students to gain the hands-on research experience that is so important to their development as scientists. In particular, each year I will recruit two or three CUNY students to participate in a paid research training fellowship. We will work with the students to co-develop a research experience that meets their needs and interests. Our hope is that providing a well-paid research position and recruiting students in groups will remove some barriers to participation, encourage peer-to-peer learning, and foster a comfortable and meaningful immersive research experience.

We have a whole suite of high school students from all over the New York City area who intern in our lab in the summers. And over the past two years, I’ve also been working with the nonprofit organization Wave Hill, in the Bronx, where students have an opportunity to take a one-year program that provides them with different aspects of training and education related to ecology. The students spend the entire summer working with scientists on research in New York City. Some of these students have been engaged in our research in New York City and mentored by graduate students and a recent Hunter undergrad in my lab.

For this new project, I built on that partnership. While the core research will be at Harvard Forest in Massachusetts, we’re going to set up a parallel demonstration forest at Wave Hill, and we’ll make similar types of measurements. High school students and public high school science teachers, and even our undergrads, can make the same type of measurements that we’re making at Harvard Forest. We’re going to use this as a way to connect urban forests, where most people get their first exposure to nature, with the type of rural forest where a lot of research is conducted. I’ve also earmarked money to take my classes at Hunter up to Harvard Forest for a three-day field trip as part of one of my courses.

GC: Your project focuses on temperate, fragmented forests. Are temperate forests fragmented because of environmental stress?

Reinmann: The two main drivers of fragmentation across the eastern half of the U.S. are agriculture and development. As forests got cut down to grow food and converted to different forms of development, we wound up getting a landscape where we still have some pretty big areas of forest, but a lot of our forests are in smaller patches. We know that when you take a forest and you chop it up into smaller pieces, in contrast to what’s been observed in the tropics, the trees actually grow a lot faster, but they also become more adversely impacted by climate stressors, like heat.

And we don’t really know why these forests, on one hand, grow faster, but on the other hand, are also more negatively impacted by climate stress. With this experiment, we’re going to figure out exactly why that is, or at least we hope we will.

Globally, a third of all of our fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions gets taken up by forests, and the temperate forest is the largest component of that. But most of the places where people have studied how forests remove carbon from the atmosphere and how they respond to climate change have been in intact forests that are relatively pristine.

What we find is that about 25% of all of our forests in the temperate area are fragmented. And we’re finding evidence that their capacity to take up carbon is much different than the places where we typically study these dynamics.

If we’re trying to understand how our forests will be affected by climate change, we need to include these sorts of forests. And as we’re developing policies to combat climate change, we need to understand how much carbon we can continue to expect our forests to remove from the atmosphere. If we’re not accurately capturing how much carbon our forests are removing from the atmosphere, we run the risk of developing less effective policies.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing