The why of everything . . . getting to know Colleen Iversen

Oct 23, 2015

[This is one in a series of articles about Climate Change Science Institute (CCSI) researchers, designed to better acquaint you with them—both professionally and personally.]

Collection of soil core samples in Barrow, Alaska.
Photo courtesy of Colleen Iversen.

Colleen Iversen, a member of CCSI’s Terrestrial Ecosystem and Carbon Cycling Science group, grew up on a farm in rural Michigan. The daughter of two scientists, it almost seemed inevitable that Colleen would become a scientist—just not a geologist. “My parents were geologists for the State of Michigan,” Iversen says, “which means that family vacations involved looking at a lot of road cuts alongside busy highways and discussing the geologic strata,” making her want to be anything but a geologist. However, she says that growing up with parents who are scientists really makes you want to understand the way the world works, the “why” of things, something she says seems to be ingrained in all scientists. “The thing that differentiates scientists from the general population seems to be that we don’t want to stop until we answer that why question. And I think this is what makes science so much fun for me . . . there is always a new question to answer, so there is always something just over the horizon.”

She’s not exactly sure what inspired her to go into the biological-environmental sciences, though all those summers spent outside from dawn ‘til dusk “digging around in the dirt” might have had something to do with it. It gave her an interest in how everything fit together, she says, . . . the why of everything.

When asked what she likes best about her chosen profession, the immediate response is “a lot.”

“Every day is different. I like getting to determine my fate for a given day or even year (within certain constraints) and chasing down answers to questions that we (CCSI), our sponsors, and other investigators have determined are important.”

People are a big part of the equation, too, she says. Some of her CCSI colleagues “are almost like family; others I very much respect, both in terms of the way they do their science and the way they interact with other people.” So much so that she says she is inspired by them and is proud to be part of a team where individuals are “good scientists, but also good people.”

“I also like to be on the cutting edge of new technology and science,” she says, “and what better place for this than a national laboratory?” Colleen believes Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the other national labs bring next-generation technologies and ways of thinking, not necessarily available in other venues, to bear on scientific questions. “Along with that comes multidisciplinary teams—multiple investigators with multiple skills, multiple ideas, and multiple ways of looking at things. And that’s part of what makes a national laboratory great.”

Not to mention the new and interesting places to work that potentially haven’t been explored before, like the bogs and tundra that are a big part of her main research projects.


Peat, bogs, and tundra

Minirhizotrons were installed in each
SPRUCE experimental plot in fall, 2012. 
Minirhizotron image of roots and mycorrhizal hyphae.
Image scan is 3 mm by 2.25 mm at 100x magnification.

Colleen’s time currently is spread over three CCSI projects: SPRUCE (Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Climatic and Environmental Change), an experiment led by Paul Hanson to assess the response of northern peatland ecosystems to increases in temperature and elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations; NGEE-Arctic (Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments-Arctic), a project led by Stan Wullschleger designed to advance predictive understanding of Arctic Ecosystems in response to climate change; and NGEE-Tropics, a project designed to develop a predictive understanding of how tropical forests will respond to changing environmental drivers, where Rich Norby is the ORNL institutional lead. (Because of her large role in the first two projects, Colleen plays more of an advisory role in NGEE-Tropics.)

For SPRUCE she is investigating the effects of warming and elevated CO2 on the root growth of bog tree and shrub species, as well as how changes in the availability of nutrients could influence both root growth and responses to warming. The SPRUCE project recently marked a major milestone when all project enclosures, designed to allow heating of the air and soil to a depth of 2 meters (6.5 feet), went “live” (see recent SPRUCE article). Just back from the northern Minnesota research site, Colleen is excited about the responses she is already seeing. She says the treatments are working well, to the extent that some of the trees, in response to the warming, have started to “leaf out” again, later in the growing season than they should, and there are even some new flowers.

The NGEE-Arctic project is currently transitioning to Phase 2 and moving southward to the Seward Peninsula, bringing changes to Colleen’s role. As colleagues have moved on to other projects, she has seen her role grow. For example, she has assumed a task leadership role for a new task on plant traits (how they enable plants to adapt, and how they are used in models). The same is true of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program, home to the SPRUCE project, where, along with CCSI’s Jeffrey Warren, she has assumed a leadership role on a new task to develop a global root trait database to improve the representation of roots in terrestrial biosphere models.

A common element in these new tasks is filling in knowledge gaps. For years Colleen and other “root ecologists” have decried the lack of information on roots and the representation of belowground processes in models. Colleen says, “This is because no one had previously brought all of the root information together in one place, in a useful form, and now that work on this has started, the gaps in information have become glaringly apparent.” Hopefully the work she and others are doing in this area will better inform the models that are predicting the climate future.


The next generation

Colleen is already contributing to the next generation of scientists through mentoring, which she says has helped her develop and clarify her personal philosophy. First and foremost she is concerned with two things: (1) careful, safe science and (2) balance. She would like to see more conscious thought given to the lives people have outside of work and puts this into practice helping mentees see the importance of balance in their lives.

As a young scientist with a family, she is acutely aware of the difficulties of achieving balance and expresses appreciation for the managers and team leaders who have understood her needs. Like many early career scientists with small children at home, she frequently feels torn between career and home—especially given the amount of travel necessitated by her work. While she has a strong support system, including her husband, a software engineer whose days are spent at home with their 4-year-old son, it hasn’t always been easy justifying the time away. Still, she says, “I think that someday he’ll be proud to have a mother who is a scientist.”

Because of that active 4-year-old, Colleen says she spends a lot of time outside of work “learning about the planets, learning about math, doing science experiments with grandma, running in circles ‘til we fall down, hiking, and looking for rocks.” (When it’s pointed out to her that sometimes traits skip a generation, she says she’s a little worried about that last thing.)

One thing she would like to see for the next generation of scientists is “more people who look like me”—women that is, particularly women in leadership positions. “It’s nice to see someone who is making a difference who looks like you.” It’s easy to see how Colleen could be that inspiration for the next generation.

Colleen’s work has been published in high-impact journals ranging from New Phytologist, Global Change Biology, and Ecology to the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. For more about Colleen’s research and recent publications, please visit Colleen’s webpage.   

By VJ Ewing.  Photos courtesy of Colleen Iversen