StFX physics graduate Robyn Latimer received a very welcome email this week. She learned she was the lead author on a paper accepted in peer review at the Journal of Biogeosciences, a leading international scientific publication from the European Geophysical Union.
Friday, February 12, 2016 at 10:23 am
Normally only seasoned professional scientists publish in the journal, and undergraduate authors, like Ms. Latimer, are extremely rare, especially as lead author, says her supervisor, earth sciences professor Dr. Dave Risk.
“I’m definitely excited to see the print version, which will come out in a few months,” Ms. Latimer says.
Her paper, “An inversion approach for determining production depth and temperature sensitivity of soil respiration,” resulted from a challenging fourth year thesis project at StFX.
The project is a computer-based soil science study, and is unusual for the journal in two ways, Dr. Risk says. First, it contains no field data. Her whole study was done in a virtual environment. Secondly, her subject matter is neither biology nor chemistry, but physics, which would seem to lie outside the regular journal scope.
Ms. Latimer’s study is, however, an important translational piece showing how soil biologists and chemists can use computational physics to solve longstanding problems.
She wrote and tested computer models for interpreting records of CO2 in soils recorded by sensors at field sites. The CO2 is produced in soils by breathing microbes, as they consume organic matter.
Ms. Latimer showed how physics could help locate the depth at which the microbes were living, and to document how fast the microbes were responding to outside stimuli, like a rise in temperature.
Many soil scientists have traditionally been interested in this information, but had to turn towards sources of data other than just CO2. Ms. Latimer used the Atlantic Computing Excellence Network (ACE-Net) supercomputers for much of the work.
“Robyn is an extraordinary student and an absolute delight to work with, but really it was her engagement and effort that made her so successful,” says Dr. Risk, who is second author on the paper.
“She arrived at my doorstep at the end of her second year and wanted to use her physics knowledge outdoors. For a long time, she helped maintain CO2 measurement sites in Cape Breton. But, we pushed back toward physics for her thesis work. The physics-earth sciences link might initially seem unnatural, but most modern problems in environmental science are solved by combining ideas from different disciplines.”
Now at Dalhousie University in the atmospheric physics masters program, Ms. Latimer is part of a research group which aims to improve understanding of processes controlling air quality and climate. She is still collaborating with Dr. Risk and other researchers as they start to reprocess CO2 data from field sites around the world.
“The most interest has been from Arctic soil researchers,” she says. “Thawing permafrost is starting to make ancient previously-frozen organic matter available to microbes. And, CO2 and other gases are being emitted in large quantities so we’d like to know where that CO2 originates. We’ll use the model to reprocess some of the existing CO2 datasets. These collaborations should be fun!”