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Dr. Ben Houlton Named as Associate Director of JMIE

January 5, 2016

Mark Schwartz, Director of JMIE

Dr. Benjamin Houlton was recently named the Associate Director of the John Muir Institute of the Environment, effective January 1, 2016. Dr. Houlton is a Professor in Land, Air and Water Resources and his research focuses on how changing climates impact ecosystem processes. Ben joins the JMIE team to help lead the Institute toward global leadership in climate change science. Dr. Houlton has been at the core of a campus initiative to collect, analyze and assess large data sets from the physical, biological and social environment. He brings to JMIE a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm for helping integrate a diversity of campus research efforts on climate change mitigation and adaptation into a cohesive climate change program through the John Muir Institute.

Ben grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota where he became passionate about nature – especially fly fishing – and spent a ton of time camping throughout the Midwest on extended family trips. He went to University of Wisconsin-Stevens point, became enthralled by a simple observation posed by a professor his sophomore year. Quoting from Ben’s recollection: “we are yet to balance the nitrogen cycle in any system anywhere.” This challenge led Ben to his initial fascination the chemistry of our Earth and how humans are changing that chemical balance. He began exploring the use of Chlorofluorocarbons as a marker for the human footprint on groundwater and stream samples as part of an undergraduate thesis research. This work resulted in his first scientific presentation, where he deduced a link between the age of groundwater and stream nitrogen concentrations; that old water prior to human activities was nitrogen depleted, whereas modern waters showed concentrations of nitrate in excess of the drinking water standard, owing to the advent of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer technology and applications to grow food. All of this culminated in a degree in Aquatic Chemistry and Chemistry minor (1998), and set the seeds for Ben’s interest in graduate school.

Photo: Analyzing biogenic gases in soil samples collected from a remote tropical rainforest in the Maya Mountains, Belize. Benjamin Houlton has been leading efforts in the Bladen Reserve to understand the CO2 uptake capacity of lowland tropical forests and to link this key ecosystem service to the biological and geochemical diversity of the tropical forest biome.

Ben has been on the fast track of ecosystem science ever since. Ben has worked on a suite of globally renowned of ecosystem study areas (Hubbard Brook, the Hawaiian Volcanics,  Jasper Ridge Free Air Exchange experiment (FACE)) in honing his unique research interests that meld theory to experimentation in understanding human impacts on nutrient cycles. From boreal to deserts to the tropics, Ben works on a deep understanding of global nutrient cycles and how changing environmental conditions alter those cycles. His highly cited research program is published in leading journals, including Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This research has been covered by NPR, BBC, MSNBC and other leading news agencies. Dr. Houlton received a prestigious NSF CAREER award, is a UC Davis Chancellor’s Fellow, and has helped lead campus efforts in undergraduate mentoring for under-represented groups.

We are delighted to welcome Dr. Houlton to the JMIE Family of researchers and research programs. We look forward to the institutional growth and development that his association will trigger. Dr. Houlton nicely complements existing research strengths within JMIE and can catalyze a suite of diverse research strengths at UC Davis into new collaborative research initiatives to help California and the world reduce greenhouse gas impacts on ecosystems and better adapt to a changing world.

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