For Colorado College Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Rebecca Barnes, science is much more than just an occupation — it’s a lifelong passion she first developed when she was just 8 years old.
Barnes is a biogeochemist and ecosystem ecologist with a bachelor’s degree in geology from Oberlin College, master’s degrees in environmental science and public affairs from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. in Forestry and Environmental Studies from Yale University.
She’s been teaching at CC for the past six years and recently secured a nearly $850,000 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation for a research project that evaluates the regularity and severity of wildfires across the Western U.S.
The project, “The Legacy of Wildfire on Carbon Watershed Biogeochemistry,” is exploring how wildfires are capable of changing ecosystems, and how they contribute to climate change by releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
“When I moved to Colorado, it was right after [the Waldo Canyon fire] happened and that was a timely issue. And I wanted to involve students in something that was visceral to them in close proximity,” Barnes said.
“And as it turns out, any disturbance to the landscape is going to change the way water, carbon and nitrogen move through it. And so we can learn a lot about the ecosystem by looking at those disturbances.”
The five-year CAREER grant, the first of its kind for CC, will provide research opportunities for students both in and outside of the classroom.
Barnes talked with the Business Journal about her current projects and the importance of scientific research.
How did you come to love science?
When I was really little I went to a summer camp that my mom sent me to — and she fully admits she sent me because it was only five nights. I was 8 and she thought five nights was a good duration for my first sleepover camp. It was this environmental studies camp in West Virginia. I went and completely fell in love with all of the things — and, according to my parents, insisted on going back every year. And so I did go back every year.
Then as I got older, it was the space where I was allowed to be me and allowed to be fascinated with the stuff that I cared about as opposed to, I don’t know, [the band] Whitesnake or whatever was popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s. So I think that space really just supported me being me. I think a lot of us don’t have that opportunity.
Tell us about your work at CC.
As a professor at Colorado College our main mission is teaching our students — so I teach classes on climate change and hydrology, and global cycles of elements such as carbon and nitrogen.
In terms of my research, it really centers around thinking about how ecosystems have been disturbed — mostly by humans — and how that changes the way carbon and nitrogen move about the environment.I care about carbon and nitrogen because they are fundamental to essentially everything that we need from our planet, including in our daily lives.
Most people know we burn fossil fuels … and that carbon is critical to society as we know it, but we also know that there’s a lot of unintended consequences to us burning those fossil fuels.One of those is the drying and warming of our environment in the western United States, which has led to more severe fires. And so my research is really looking at: What are the long-term consequences of having more severe fires like Waldo Canyon?
As it turns out, any disturbance to the landscape is going to change the way water, carbon and nitrogen move through it. And so we can learn a lot about the ecosystem by looking at those disturbances, as well as learning about how we’re affecting that ecosystem.
Describe this NSF grant. Why is it important?
This is an award given to folks pre-tenure at a university to integrate both research and teaching into their lives and their students’ lives. It’s very much focused on … using stable isotopes to better understand how we’re changing ecosystems.
In many ways I use isotopes — which are atoms that have slightly different weights because of the number of neutrons in them and therefore move through the environment differently — to tell me about how the ecosystem has changed and how the carbon within those ecosystems is moving and being processed differently.
We don’t have the capability of measuring stable isotopes on this campus, and that’s largely due to the fact that we’re a small teaching school that has put a lot of our resources into being the best at what we do, which is educating.
So what my grant does is it allows me to create this network with large research institutions that have these facilities.
My hope is that it’s going to really provide an amazing educational opportunity for students here.
What do you feel like good research should accomplish?
I think that research, in its ideal sense, is helping us understand how the world works, but also being able to translate that into making the world a better place.
I work on evidence-based mentoring programs, so I work with educational psychologists to better understand how we can increase participation in STEM fields from folks who are traditionally left out — whether that is white women, students of color, students with disabilities, or students who are from LGBTQ spaces.
All of these folks have been underrepresented in the STEM fields, and there are lots of reasons for it and most of them are structural barriers, whether it has to do with your socioeconomic situation … or the fact that you’ve never seen someone who looks like you in the space that you might want to go.
Role models are critical to understanding that. So I think we can use research to better understand not only how to translate science to management, and how to better live in our world, but also how to do science better.
Good research is not only improving society and improving our knowledge, but it’s also improving the way we do research.
What are some other projects you’re passionate about?
I do this Wikipedia project in my class. Students write a biography of a woman in STEM as it’s related to the class that I’m teaching, or someone else from another underrepresented group.
Part of that is for the students to find a connection with a scientist. So whether that’s a political scientist or an ecologist or a climate modeler, students can then see that scientists are human.
They’ve said that it is great to be doing something that’s for more than a grade, that it humanizes science, and that it makes them care more about what they’re learning in class.
And this is important because Wikipedia is [one of the most frequently visited websites] in the world, and less than 17 or 18 percent of biographies on Wikipedia are of women.
I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that more than 18 percent of the people in the world are women. So we need to, for lack of a better phrase, decolonize Wikipedia if this is the source of information for most of the world. The Wikipedia project has, since I started it last year, created more than 100 bios that are online now. It’s been way more than I could have ever expected.
What are some of your immediate goals?
I am excited to use those NSF grants as a way to even better incorporate my research into my teaching, and vice versa. And also get students who potentially don’t see themselves as scientists to be collecting data, and for that data to be informing larger projects that do get published, and are presented at scientific meetings.
I have students who are like, ‘I’m not a scientist, I can’t be a scientist,’ and they say those words.
So I would just love it if this grant enables me to reach a few more students who feel that they can’t be a scientist and show them that we’re all capable.
You also do some outreach work with sixth graders. How did that come about?
It started because of someone who works here [at CC] whose daughter was in a STEM outreach program. I’ve been doing it with a teacher at Piñon Valley for five years.
Since then, other people have found out about it and have asked me if I can do it for them, and I always do. It’s really great. And sometimes people are like, ‘I can’t believe you do that!’ But I can live on the enthusiasm of sixth graders for like, two weeks.
It’s super awesome and it’s lovely to remember that there are places in our lives where we are unfettered by social pressures and we can still be gleeful when learning.