USGS biofuel researcher receives presidential award

By Erin Voegele | October 18, 2011

A researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey who is pursuing a biofuels project has been recognized with a highly prestigious award. Research Ecologist Sasha Reed recently received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Reed’s research focuses on how ecosystems respond to global change and has added new direction to the fields of biogeochemistry and ecosystem ecology. Highlights of her research include biofuels development in the southwest, 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 the model ecosystems, helping to provide critical information to decision makes for land management issues.

Regarding the biofuels component of her research, Reed notes that it is really a part of a larger project that has been set up by the U.S. geological survey. “I think it’s a really forward-thinking project,” she said. “[It addresses] the potential—both in terms of energy development and in terms of ecosystems—the consequences of developing biofuels in the southwestern United States.”

What we are doing, she continued, is taking a two-pronged approach to thinking about biofuels. One prong of the research involves working with modelers at the University of Montana to try to evaluate the potential for the cultivation of biofuels feedstocks. The second component of the project focuses on what type of impacts biofuel production could have on the ecosystems of the Southwest. This will include evaluating the impact of specific feedstocks on greenhouse gas emissions levels. “We also have questions about what biofuels could mean for water use,” Reed said. “The Southwest is a really dry place, so coming up with the biofuels crops that take tons and tons more water that we already use in the Southwest probably isn’t a viable option.”

Several feedstocks are being evaluated as part of Reed’s research, including algae, jatropha and rapeseed. Reed notes the outlook for algae biofuels in the Southwest is particularly promising, especially when it comes to water use. “A lot of those closed systems could recirculate water and nutrients,” said Reed, which would help overcome the limitations associated with local water supplies.

According to information release by the USGS, 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 U.S. DOE, 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 students 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.

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.