Much of Utah State University doctoral student Jessica Murray’s field experience has been spent high above the ground — studying carbon cycling from soils some 80 feet up in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve tree canopy of Costa Rica, to be exact. With recent research, Murray is exploring “normal, on-the-ground soils” within the mountainous Central American nation’s tropical alpine ecosystem — known as páramo — within Chirripó National Park. Travel to her field sites begins with a six-hour car ride, followed by a seven-hour trek on foot to the park’s field station, which is her base, before further challenging hikes to remote research areas.
National recognition from the Ecological Society of America affords the ecologist yet another, quite different form of field experience as a recipient of the society’s Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award. As part of the 2022 nationwide cohort of 44 scholars, the Lawrenceville, Georgia native will meet with a to-be-determined member of Utah’s national congressional delegation to discuss the importance of federal investments in the biological and ecological sciences.
Murray is the first Aggie to receive the award, which was established about a decade ago to honor McCarter’s efforts as ESA executive director, in promoting the society’s engagement with policymakers and the public.
“I haven’t much experience in political or policy-making processes, but my research has fueled my concern about climate change,” says Murray, who is mentored by former USU faculty member Bonnie Waring, now with England’s Imperial College London, and John Stark, professor in USU’s Department of Biology and the Ecology Center. “We tend to think of trees and forests as the main reservoirs of carbon storage, but even more carbon is stored in the world’s soils. Climate change is accelerating the loss of soil carbon throughout the globe, which could accelerate climate change even more.”
The McCarter Award is designed to equip Murray with skills and opportunities to share her scientific knowledge, including participating in real-world engagement in the fast-paced, rough-and-tumble policy realm.
“Very few of our elected representatives are scientists, yet they’re called upon to make impactful decisions urgently in need of sound science,” Murray says. “With our ESA training, my fellow awardees and I are learning how to establish relationships with policymakers and offer our expertise with policy decisions.”
Mitigation of climate change is among policy decisions requiring increasingly pressing attention, she says.
“I understand our Utah representatives are focused on the needs and concerns of their constituents, and the effects of climate change may seem like a distant issue — a more immediate concern for developing, coastal countries like Myanmar or Bangladesh than a land-locked U.S. state,” Murray says. “But, during my virtual congressional visit, I plan to cite research by USU climate scientist Simon Wang and his team linking human activity to a series of typhoons in Southeast Asia and how, last fall, storms from that part of the world appear to have led directly to the unusually fierce windstorm that ravaged our own Utah State campus here in Cache Valley.”
Murray’s doctoral studies in Chirripó National Park have been supported by a Fulbright Scholarship she received in 2020, as well as funding from the USU Ecology Center and a Biology Ecology Graduate Research Award from USU’s Department of Biology.
“Jessica is a motivated, independent and exemplary graduate student,” says Department of Biology Head Diane Alston. “In addition to her research, she is teaching our department’s tropical ecology course remotely from Costa Rica. She’s an excellent citizen in our department.”
Nancy Huntly, director of USU’s Ecology Center, says she’s “delighted and excited” to see a USU student receive the McCarter Award.
“It’s an excellent award program and I’m confident Jessica will make the most of this opportunity,” Huntly says. “This program allows students to put science into action.”
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