Colorado State University’s School of Global and Environmental Sustainability turns 15 in 2023. Its founder, University Distinguished Professor Diana Wall, is still at the helm. Since beginning at CSU, she’s added an impressive array of honors for her research into soil health, including election to the National Academy of Sciences, the Tyler Prize, the Ulysses Medal, the President’s Medal from the British Ecological Society, and a place in the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. She also has an entire valley in Antarctica named after her, in honor of her decades of research into the nematodes found there and has chaired numerous international committees devoted to fighting climate change.
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Stacy Nick of the CSU news team talks with University Distinguished Professor Diana Wall, director of the School of Global and Environmental Sustainability
(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)
You thought the study of environmental sustainability was so important that it needed its own school. Why and why was CSU the place to create it?
The School of Global Environmental Sustainability was not my project. It was everybody’s project. The foundation of it was actually in 1992 (at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio) when we started worrying about climate change and the loss of biodiversity. So, it was timely when we started the school that the University pulled together. The administration said that it heard the grassroots efforts from faculty that it was time to have some sort of school that capitalizes on what is going on in the world, the grand challenges we’re going to have in the environment. We knew within ourselves that there was a lot of strength by saying, let’s have a school that really builds on the strengths that every college contributes to sustainability.
Your work has centered on soil health, specifically on the nematode. What is it about this little roundworm that captured your interest?
I liked looking through a microscope. I liked microbiology, and one of my mentors showed me that there were tiny roundworms, smaller than your eyelash, in the soil, that you could get out of the soil. And that they were parasites on crops, that they actually affected the growth of plants. I thought this tiny little worm can do this and you can identify the different species. And that has taken me, as you mentioned, all the way to Antarctica.
And so off to Antarctica.
Yes, we wrote a grant and we got funded and we thought, “Well, we’ve got two seasons on the ice and that’ll be it.” Twenty-eight seasons later, we’re still studying what’s happening, now at both poles.
What was that first trip like for you?
It was really surreal. It’s a lot like science fiction when you go down there. You land on ice; the plane has skis. You fly about eight hours from Christchurch, New Zealand and you get off that plane and you’ve been flying in the dark in this cylinder of a plane, and then all of a sudden you go out the door and it’s just white. It’s just vast white everywhere you look. It’s quite amazing.
Then you go down to the helicopter pad with all your gear, you load it up in the helicopter. You fly about 40 miles, about 30 minutes across more ice, to get to this vast valley. The best way I can describe it is, think of that Mars movie that everybody seems to like. It is just rocks and soil and there’s nothing moving. There’s no bugs, there’s no green, it’s just Mars. So, it was pretty striking. And then the next thing that gets you is there’s no sound. It is so quiet. Every once in a while, you hear a glacier crack in the distance. It’s a very weird experience, and it’s one that I looked forward to when I started going down more and more, just that period where you realize you’re one of the luckiest people in the world to see this landscape.
Tell me about the training you went through to do these trips.
To prepare to go to Antarctica, we have to have a list made of what we want in April of the same year we’re going to travel. So that means we are madly writing down how many beakers we need, what kind of microscope we need. We have to walk in and furnish a whole lab. Then we have to get everything ready for the field. We start thinking about survival gear. Everybody’s learning how to use a radio; we have to learn how to get in and out of a helicopter. So, you take survival school to learn up on everything from lighting a stove, knowing how to set up a tent in a windstorm, how to strap yourself into the helicopter, how to shut down the helicopter if it crashes, and if you’re in the backseat what do you do?
This is a big commitment to make every season. What has kept you going back all these years?
I think it’s the best scientific experience I can say continually over my life. The colleagues that I have there, the many disciplines that I’m working with – glaciologists, biogeochemists, geochemists, aquatic ecologists. And you’re all trying to look at how this system works? It’s one of the most pristine on Earth. How does it work and what is going to happen when we see it warm up and we start seeing fast changes? If we’re sitting here and we’re starting to see this big change that nobody has seen for hundreds of thousands of years, how are they going to survive, adapt? Is this going to be a place where we have more invasive species? Are we doing all the damage?
What are your thoughts on climate change today? Has it changed significantly since you began your work?
Oh, yeah. In Antarctica, all of us – at least the 30-some people I worked with – were astounded one particular summer. We had a warm — what we would call a “warm” season, so that might be 32 degrees. And we were in a helicopter and coming in to do a routine sampling in one of the experimental plots where we’d changed temperature, moisture and added carbon. We were coming back for our annual visit to sample this and to get our yearly data, and one of the guys who was in the helicopter with me said, “Diana, why did you put your experiment in the middle of a flood?” And I said, “What? I didn’t put my experiment in the middle of a flood. There’s no water there.” And here was the water coming down the hill. So, we knew there was warming. We didn’t know whether it was a glacier source or not, or whether it was just permafrost. It could have been either. So, we had the stream geochemist looking at that. I think that that change was in 2002 and it made such a remarkable difference in the populations we started seeing in the communities. That was really notable.
If there’s one thing that you think the public should know or be thinking about in terms of climate change, what would you say that that should be?
I think we need to realize that we’ve got it. And I think a lot more people realize now that there’s going to be a lot of uncertainty in our weather patterns, in our climate from here on out. But I also would say everybody can do something about it. Whether it’s doing what we’re doing on this campus, which is putting up solar panels, trying to use less energy, planting trees, looking at the right ways to do that, saving our biodiversity. You cannot address this issue of climate change without addressing the fact that if we lose all our biodiversity, we’re not going to have storage of carbon. And we need to store the carbon in plants, trees, the ground, dead nematodes – that’s all contributing to storing carbon in the soil. We need to do that, and we also need to do our own daily things, whatever they are. And this campus is really good at suggesting those.