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Team Cary: Dr. Michelle Wong

Dr. Michelle Wong discusses how she became interested in soil science, meeting people in remote places, and her work on tropical forests.

Michelle Wong came to Cary from Cornell University, where she received her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Wong works with Cary scientist Sarah Batterman studying how nutrients effect the regrowth of tropical forests. This research explores whether forests in the future will take up carbon dioxide at the same rate throughout their lives, or if nutrient limitation will eventually cause plant growth to slow down.

Wong received her BS in Molecular Environmental Biology and her BA in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.

How did you get your start in science?

During my first year of undergrad, I took an introductory environmental issues course. The professor was a soil scientist and shared many of the essential functions that soil performs. Soil filters water and allows us to grow food. Plus it harbors bacteria that can break down toxic chemicals. I loved the idea that something that we often ignore or call ‘dirt’ could be so important. After that class, I signed up for soil science courses whenever I could.

What was your first research experience?

As an undergrad, I wanted to try research, but I didn’t know that you could simply ask professors to work for them – with a good chance they’d say yes. So I ended up spending a lot of time washing dishes in a soil science lab as part of a work-study program.

At the end of my senior year, I applied to work in a soil microbiology lab through the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP). There, with another undergrad, I assisted a graduate student who was studying selenium toxicity.

soil pit cc paul lefebvre
Michelle Wong sampling deep soils in Mato Grosso, Brazil to measure concentrations of nutrients. The depth of the soil pit shows how weathered the soils are. Credit: Paul Lefebvre.

How did you know you wanted to get a PhD?

I never knew that I wanted to – or that I even could – pursue a PhD. I became more confident after undergrad while working for Dr. Whendee Silver at UC Berkeley. It sort of happened by chance; I had taken two of her classes, and I ran into her in the hallway during my last semester of college. I told her that I was looking for a job and she needed technicians. In her lab, I spent most of my time assisting with the Marin Carbon Project, studying impacts of land management on soil carbon storage, with a focus on effects of compost application.

My next job was with the California Environmental Protection Agency. Working in a regulatory position, I realized I needed to go back to school if I wanted to do more advanced work. I chose Cornell for my PhD because I wanted to work on nitrogen pollution, and there was a great National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program called ‘Cross-scale biogeochemistry and climate’. The program united multiple fields, provided unique training opportunities, and supported collaboration with scientists from Cary Institute and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

What kind of fieldwork were you doing then?

My advisor suggested I look at how nutrient limitation impacts nitrogen fixation, a key ecosystem function that brings available nitrogen to plants. Nitrogen is a critical nutrient that regulates plant growth. That’s why we apply so much nitrogen fertilizer to lawns and crops; unfortunately this contributes to water pollution.

We focused on nitrogen in tropical forest systems. Nitrogen fixation – the process by which plants turn atmospheric nitrogen into a fertilizer they can use – hasn't been measured in many tropical forests, but it's thought to be relatively high. Nitrogen fixation is often limited by rock-derived nutrients, which are scarce in tropical forests where precipitation and higher temperature intensify soil weathering.

This led to the question—are nitrogen fixation rates high in remote tropical forests that are isolated from rock weathering and atmospheric deposition? For this project, I got to work in a part of Brazil where nitrogen fixation had not been measured to test nutrient limitation. I found that despite low concentrations of nutrients, nitrogen fixation was unhindered. This led me to wonder, how do these ecosystems adapt to survive in extremely low nutrient conditions?

What are you working on here at Cary?

At Cary, I’m working with Sarah Batterman to study how trees adapt to nutrient limitation as they recover in regenerating tropical forests. We’re looking at the individual and community level. At the individual level, plants can produce more fine roots and enzymes to help take up nutrients. However, this strategy is carbon-intensive and comes at an energetic cost to the plant. We think plants ramp-down these strategies when nutrients are more abundant.

At the community level, we are exploring if plant community composition shifts as nutrient availability changes. Some trees can form a symbiotic relationship with bacteria to fix nitrogen. We think that changing nutrient conditions might change their abundance. How well plant communities are able to adapt to changing nutrients will affect how the tropical forest carbon sink will behave in the future, especially because about half of tropical forests globally are recovering from disturbances like logging and farming.

Forest recovering from pasture in Agua Salud, Panama. Credit: Michelle Wong.

What’s your favorite memory from working in the field?

Definitely meeting people that I never would have crossed paths with otherwise. I worked in midwestern Brazil, which is very remote. There was lot of forest that had been converted into cow pasture and industrial cropland. I’d fly into the capital, Brasilia, then take a 16-hour bus to Canarana, the town at the end of the bus line. From there, you drive in a truck to reach the field station, which was located on a farm growing corn and soy. I really loved the connections I made working there; some of the technicians are among my favorite people.

Do you have any advice for young scientists?

I am a first-generation college student. I didn’t realize that going to talk to professors, or offering to volunteer in their labs, was a done thing. Learning this a bit late, I only did lab research in the last semester of my senior year. Throughout college, I tended to focus on classes, but I wish I’d been more proactive in looking for other opportunities. That said, I learned that it’s never too late to start this process. It’s also important to seek guidance and ask others for advice and for their story. People generally want to help.

If you had unlimited funding, what kind of projects would you do?

A big question in our field is – how is the amount of carbon plants take up going to change as climatic conditions change? Right now, plants take up about 32% of the carbon dioxide emissions produced by people. There are studies called Free-Air Carbon dioxide Enrichment (FACE) experiments, where researchers are pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to see how it affects plant growth. I would love to support the FACE experiment in Brazil, which will help us understand how tropical forests will respond to rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Will warmer temperatures and more droughts and storms affect forests negatively, or will rising carbon dioxide induce more photosynthesis?

What has been your biggest surprise in science?

I’ve come to realize that science is often a lonely process. You’re in charge of your own project and you must be motivated to see it through. However, there are opportunities for collaboration, and when you take advantage of these, good things can happen. Some of the best friends I have today are people that I have collaborated with.

What do you do when you’re not in the lab?

Back in the summer, I spent a lot of time exploring towns in the area. I love to run outside, especially on the trails here at Cary. I’m excited to try cross-country skiing once it snows again. Food-wise, I like Julien’s a lot. I also love the chocolate croissant from Babette’s Kitchen, though you have to get there really early if you want to snag one.