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An interview with Jon Cole

Photo by Robert Nunnally

Cary Institute biogeochemist Dr. Jonathan Cole recently received one of the highest distinctions a scientist can achieve: election into the National Academy of Sciences. The honor recognizes his distinguished career in limnology, the study of lakes, rivers, and other inland waters.

Cole’s tenure at the Cary Institute spans 30 years. He was one of the first scientists hired by the organization’s founding director Dr. Gene Likens. A past PhD student of Likens’ at Cornell, Cole had embarked on post-doctoral assignments at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the Marine Biological Lab before being drawn to Millbrook.

Recently, we discussed his path to the Cary Institute, how the organization has shaped his career, and some of his notable achievements.

What drew you to the Cary Institute?

More than anything, I believed in Likens’ vision: assemble bright scientists and put them to work understanding how ecosystems function. Academic freedom, relief from the burden of excessive teaching, and permission to focus on my science were all huge selling points. And early on, it became apparent that there was a unique, collaborative culture among the staff.

Would your path have been different at a university?

There are a handful of very high performing university ecologists, but they are rare. With a full course load and endless committee responsibilities, I would have accomplished less. University colleagues joke that a job at Cary is like being on sabbatical. And this is largely true. But the bottom line is that most of our scientists outperform university colleagues when it comes to grants and publications – metrics by which good science is measured.

Among your discoveries: many aquatic food webs are supported by material from adjacent lands. How has this changed thinking?

Limnology’s roots are in oceanography. Historically, limnologists viewed lakes as mini-oceans. Land-grown organic matter – like fallen leaves – plays a negligible role in the ocean’s food web. The same can’t be said for lakes and rivers. We’ve found many are fueled, in part, by organic material that washes in from their watersheds. Recognizing that some fish are made of maple leaves required stepping back from the ocean paradigm.

You’ve also changed perspectives on the role inland waters play in the global carbon cycle.

Inland waters make up a small part of Earth’s surface. But in the past decade or so, my work and that of others has shown that these waters are disproportionately important in the carbon cycle. The sediments of the African Rift Valley Lakes, for example, contain about as much organic carbon as the rest of the entire terrestrial biosphere, including all the trees and all the soil. If we want our climate models to be accurate, we need to account for the role of inland waters.

Your work explores coupled biogeochemical cycles – what does this mean?

A biogeochemical cycle is how an element moves through the Earth’s ecosystems and its geologic landscape. This cycle includes chemical reactions and biological transformations. Aldo Leopold’s essay “An Odyssey of an Atom” paints an evocative picture of the pathways. But in nature, elements like carbon and nitrogen don’t cycle alone, they have points of intersection. Exploring these ‘couplings’ is essential to understanding how the real world works.

You retire this summer. What will you tackle as emeritus Distinguished Senior Scientist?

I will continue my funded work on lake food webs, and will write more on linking terrestrial and aquatic carbon cycles. Election to the National Academy of Sciences opens some exciting possibilities, as the Academy reports to Congress on issues of national concern. I am particularly interested in weighing in on the impact that escalating population growth is having on the environment, with an eye toward solutions.