Dr. Sasha Reed, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was named one of President Obama's recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.
Reed's research investigates how ecosystems respond to global change and has added new directions to the fields of biogeochemistry and ecosystem ecology. Highlights of Reed’s research include biofuels development in the southwestern United States; climate change and its effects on terrestrial ecosystems; nitrogen deposition; and beetle infestation and its consequences. Reed’s research has transformed the way scientists conceptualize and model ecosystems and has helped provide critical information to decision makers for land management issues.
"It is inspiring to see the innovative work being done by these scientists and engineers as they ramp up their careers—careers that I know will be not only personally rewarding but also invaluable to the Nation," President Obama said in a Sept. 26 news release. "That so many of them are also devoting time to mentoring and other forms of community service speaks volumes about their potential for leadership, not only as scientists but as model citizens."
The Presidential early career awards embody the high priority the Obama Administration places on producing outstanding scientists and engineers to advance the Nation’s goals, tackle grand challenges, and contribute to the American economy.
"It is such an honor to receive this prestigious award—I am beside myself," said Reed. "I am proud because I feel I work on topics that are relevant to society. Terrestrial ecosystems are critical to our existence. They hold up our houses, provide most of our food, and offer places that are meaningful to us and our history. My goal is to understand what makes these ecosystems work the way they do, and to make that understanding accessible so that decision makers and land managers have the information they need to best evaluate how to manage our landscapes."
"We are so proud that the President has honored Dr. Reed, whose research is the epitome of our integrated solutions-oriented approach to problem-solving," said USGS Director Dr. Marcia McNutt. "Her innovative work is relevant to the science of renewable energy, ecosystems restoration, climate change, and water supplies, and directly addresses the challenges of today while anticipating those of tomorrow."
Reed is currently part of a team of scientists conducting a multi-disciplinary assessment of biofuels in the southwestern U.S., integrating modeling efforts with on-the-ground assessments to develop new ways to create energy sources. Reed is excited about this research, and notes that the southwestern U.S. has a high amount of solar energy and newer alternatives of biofuel crops, or energy, from items such as wood, plants, and even algae.
"Alternative energy offers a suite of potential benefits for lowering greenhouse gas emissions, adding to our economy, and reducing our dependence upon foreign oil," said Reed. "The U.S. could represent a significant source of biofuel energy. However, we know little about the potential for this region to act as an efficient biofuel energy source; what the requirements are, such as irrigation; what effects it would have on overall greenhouse gas budgets and local plant and animal communities; and what ecosystem consequences might follow from this development. I am working with colleagues to answer these questions with our scientific research."
Climate change, Reed said, is predicted to significantly alter terrestrial ecosystems around the globe, with the potential to negatively affect a suite of ecosystem services. Her research on climate encompasses a range of projects from studying climate manipulations in the southwestern U.S. drylands to elevation gradients in Hawai'ian forests—all aimed at elucidating how terrestrial ecosystems will respond to climate change.
"I am interested in understanding the mechanisms behind observed ecosystem changes, with the overarching goal of not only bettering our understanding these systems, but of bettering our predictions of future ecosystem function as well," said Reed, who works closely with a number of collaborators in order to try and reach these research goals.
Nitrogen deposition in the western U.S. has repeatedly been linked with lowered air quality, increased greenhouse gas emissions, altered plant community composition, reduced water quality, and modified fire regimes. Reed is a part of a research team that uses modeling and field approaches in Arches, Canyonlands, and Mesa Verde National Parks, to investigate how increased nitrogen deposition in these areas could affect plant and soil communities and their function.
"We are asking questions about how nitrogen deposition could affect exotic plant invasion, the frequency of natural fire regimes, and feedbacks between nitrogen deposition and multiple other aspects of terrestrial nitrogen cycling," said Reed.
In 2011, Reed published a paper in the journal Biogeochemistry showing that specific aspects of soil carbon cycling are aligned with aboveground plant responses to global change while others are not, and that this partitioning is predictable based on the chemistry of soil carbon. Also, in 2010, Dr. Reed published a paper using pioneering genetic techniques to directly link microbial community composition with nitrogen fixation, a link on the cutting edge of modern ecosystem ecology.
Reed is also studying how beetles are affecting plant communities across the western U.S. as well as a relatively recent release of the Tamarisk Beetle (Diorhabda elongata) that has caused major Tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) defoliation events along western river corridors. Reed is on a team working to assess the consequences of this defoliation for biogeochemical cycling, exotic plant invasion, hydrology and plant-water interactions, and bird and mammal communities.
Reed has consistently served and built connections with government agencies, academic institutions, and the public at large. She is currently collaborating and assisting in education and outreach alongside the National Park Service, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, National Geographic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Carnegie Institution for Science. Her outreach efforts have included ecology talks at all levels, including K-12 student as part of the Expanding Your Horizons—a hands on program for middle-school girls to showcase careers in scientific and engineering fields and working with a professional educator to develop a curriculum for grade school teachers.
"Being a scientist is fun, and I enjoy working with kids and exposing them to science and engineering," said Reed. "I use different approaches with kids to show them that science isn’t just something that happens in the classroom or in the field. We use science all the time. It's taking in information and processing that data and achieving outcomes, whether it is about boys, food, fashion or field work—science is honing your observation skills and thought process—it is a cool part of how the human brain works."
Reed earned a Ph.D. in ecology form the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2008; was an NSF IGERT fellow from 2003-2005 and an NSF graduate research fellow from 2005-2008; and earned a B.A. in organic chemistry from Colgate University in 1997. She began her tenure with the USGS as a technician in 1998 which inspired her to get her Ph.D. During graduate school, Reed received ESA’s Student Policy Award; was selected for the AAAS Program for Excellence in Science; and her Ph.D. thesis was one of two selected to win the University of Colorado's Graduate Student Research and Creative Works award.
The Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers was established by President Clinton in 1996, and are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach. Reed was one of 94 recipients this year.