Insect and Microbe Systems

BIO5 Institute Announces Newest BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellows

2024 BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellows
Eight outstanding postdoctoral researchers were awarded the 2024 BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship, which aims to propel interdisciplinary researchers to the next stage of their careers.
Caroline Mosley, BIO5 Institute

Now in its sixth year, this competitive fellowship through the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute provides exceptional postdoctoral researchers with monetary awards and professional development opportunities. 

Since 2019, over 40 BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellows have been awarded $5,000 each to advance their scientific projects and gain the skills they need to become independent researchers in their respective fields. The award can be used to learn new skills in workshops, travel to conferences, or visit peer labs to further collaborations. Each fellow works with a BIO5 member as a primary mentor and forms a mentoring committee that assists them with grant applications, career advice, and job talk preparations.  

The 2024 BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellows are: Marjan AghajaniAngela GreenmanAtsushi IshiiDavid JordanZoe LyskiGemma PurserPhilip Yost, and Ran Zhang.

Seeing a need to invest in the success of postdoctoral researchers, BIO5 member Michael D.L. Johnson, associate professor in the Department of Immunobiology at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson, established the fellowship with support of BIO5 leadership to support cross-disciplinary projects aligned with the BIO5 mission. 

The Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) that helped launch BIO5 more than 20 years ago continues to be a catalyst in enabling effective, cross-disciplinary bioscience research, innovation, and impact at the university and in supporting the next generation of scientists through training opportunities like the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship. 

Learn about the 2024 Fellows and their interdisciplinary research 

Marjan Aghajani, PhD 

Proposal Title: The role of the ER stress-inducible ribosome-binding protein 1 (RRBP1) in cardiomyocyte protection during ischemic stress 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Shirin Doroudgar, Department of Internal Medicine, UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix  

Heart problems caused by narrowed heart arteries, or ischemic heart disease, can affect the signaling pathways and survival of the cardiac muscle cells responsible for the contraction of the heart. It's critical to understand the molecular mechanisms of these cells and pathways to prevent cell death and the resulting stress placed on the cardiovascular system. 

With a background in medical physiology, immunology, and cell biology, Marjan Aghajani is pursuing a research career focused on studying abnormal changes in body functions caused by cardiovascular disease.  

“I want to understand how cardiac muscle cells, or myocytes, respond to stressful challenges. My vision is that such responses could become the basis of new therapies for heart diseases that stress cardiac myocytes,” said Aghajani.  

Aghajani will use the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship to study the molecular mechanisms involved in ischemic heart disease. Using human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs), she will focus on the role of ribosome-binding protein 1 (RRBP1) in cardiomyocyte survival under ischemic stress. The funds and mentorship will help her gain expertise in hiPSC culturing and differentiation and present her work at a heart research conference. 

Angela (Angie) Greenman, PhD 

Proposal Title: Quantifying the super-relaxed state of myosin 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Samantha Harris, Department of Physiology, UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson 

Understanding the molecular mechanisms of muscle contraction can lead to a better outcome of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a prevalent cause of heart failure in adults.  

Using her expertise in molecular biology, physiology, and muscle function, Angie Greenman plans to use her BIO5 Fellowship to further her career goals of becoming an independent scientist studying and teaching how skeletal and cardiac muscle function in health, disease, and under the stress of exercise. 

"I want to study the effects that cardiac and skeletal muscle proteins have on regulating contraction and relaxation in normal physiology and testing these same proteins under the stress of pathology and under the demands of exercise,” said Greenman.  

Greenman will use the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship to expand her laboratory skills, particularly in fluorescent microscopy techniques related to muscle function, to study the role of cardiac myosin binding protein-C (cMyBP-C) in muscle contraction and relaxation. Funding will allow her to visit with an expert in the field at the University of Copenhagen, learning novel techniques for characterizing different states of myosin during relaxation that opens doors to new avenues of research in her field.   

Atsushi Ishii, MD, PhD 

Proposal Title: Gaining tools to probe the dynamics of brain stem cell regeneration during aging 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Lalitha Madhavan, Department of Neurology, UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson 

Understanding the effects of aging and sex hormones on neurogenesis is important for a deeper understanding of various cranial nerves and psychiatric diseases. Some central nerve diseases develop in a variety of age-dependent manners and go into spontaneous remission, while others, such as autism spectrum disorder, develop from birth and progress chronically, and others, such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, develop in old age. Some symptoms develop and progress over time, and symptoms change with age. 

With his long-standing interests in neurological disorders and a background working as a pediatric neurologist, Atsushi Ishii wants to research regenerative approaches for addressing age-related neurological disorders. 

“Working on neurodevelopmental disorders previously in a clinical setting, I became intrigued with the role of age-dependent changes in these contexts, which although important, were less appreciated and studied,” said Ishii. 

Ishii will use the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship to investigate the molecular pathways associated with the aging of neural stem progenitor cells (NSPCs), particularly focusing on the NRF2 transcription factor and its interaction with sex hormones. He plans to visit an expert in the field at Tohuku University in Japan to learn about NRF2 biology and cutting-edge methods, as well as attend a conference around stem cell research to network and present his work.  

David Jordan, PhD 

Proposal Title: Preliminary biomechanical evaluation of the concurrency of carpal tunnel syndrome and trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Zong-Ming Li, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson 

Millions of people are afflicted with carpal tunnel syndrome and osteoarthritis, musculoskeletal disorders of the hand and wrist. 

David Jordan's mechanical engineering expertise, along with his background in physiology, bioengineering, medical imaging, and computer modeling, gives him a unique multidisciplinary perspective on the biomechanical study of the hand and wrist. 

“My current research focus involves the imaging, testing and modeling of the trapeziometacarpal joint, which is the most affected hand joint by osteoarthritis. I aim to develop novel therapeutic treatment mechanisms for this disorder,” said Jordan. 

Using the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship funds, Jordan will study the concurrency of carpal tunnel syndrome and osteoarthritis. He wants to identify and recruit patients with concurrent cases of these disorders and construct apparatuses for testing hand function. Jordan also plans to attend conferences focusing on orthopedic research and biomechanics to jumpstart his independent research career. 

Zoe Lyski, PhD 

Proposal Title: Uncovering mechanisms behind suboptimal immunity in immunocompromised individuals 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Deepta Bhattacharya, Department of Immunology, UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson 

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown, people do not develop equally protective immune responses to infection and vaccination, and those with immunocompromising conditions and cancer are especially at risk. 

With expertise in immunology and virology, Zoe Lyski will use the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship to further study how immune responses influence viral evolution.  

“There is an unmet need to uncover key drivers of suboptimal immunity and develop means of improving vaccine immune responses in immunocompromised patients. My project aims to help fill this knowledge gap,” said Lyski. 

Her project supported by the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship will focus on understanding suboptimal immunity in cancer patients, particularly regarding antibody responses to vaccination and subsequent viral evolution. Funds will help develop targeted mRNA vaccine approaches to improve outcomes in immunocompromised patients and allow her to travel and present her research at an immunology conference.  

Gemma Purser, PhD 

Proposal Title: Investigating the role of urban forest soils in mitigating atmospheric volatile organic compound driven air pollution in cities 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Laura Meredith, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, College of Agriculture, Life & Environmental Sciences 

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) contribute to air pollution, which has implications for human health particularly in urban areas. The presence of VOCs in the atmosphere has a variety of sources, but of rising concern are those originating from personal care items, cleaning products, and industrial solvents.

Specializing in atmospheric and analytical chemistry, Gemma Purser wants to further her understanding of microbial analysis and urban ecosystems to better study VOCs.  

“This fellowship offers a unique opportunity to explore critical questions at the intersection of urban ecology, atmospheric chemistry, and microbiology. I am excited about the potential impact of this research on understanding the role of urban forest soils in buffering the newly emerging sources of atmospheric volatile organic compounds in cities,” said Purser.  

Using funds from the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship, Purser will start a collaborative independent research project with Urban Biogeochemistry program at Boston University and Aerodyne Research, Inc. (ARI) to study the interplay between urban green spaces and volatile organic compounds in improving air quality. She will use the funds to conduct soil experiments using advanced mass spectrometer instrumentation at ARI and work with Boston University to further develop her microbial analysis techniques. 

Philip Yost, PhD 

Proposal Title: Biomimetic 5-module chimeric antigen receptor therapy 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Michael Kuhns, Department of Immunology, UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson

When our immune system works correctly, it deploys T cells to detect and eliminate viruses, bacteria, and other organisms that cause disease. However, sometimes these cells go rogue, attacking healthy cells and causing autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes. 

With an extensive background in cellular and developmental biology, Philip Yost wants to have a meaningful impact on human health research using a novel approach – biomimetic engineering – to genetically engineer cells that can lead to new immunotherapy treatments. 

“Since joining the Kuhns lab in fall 2022, I have successfully established a workflow for a second-generation chimeric antigen receptor as a platform to expand from just the treatment of Type 1 diabetes and extend as an application for treatments against other diseases,” said Yost. 

Yost will use the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship to design and develop a second-generation biomimetic chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) for T-cells in immunotherapy, capable of redirecting T-cells effectively. He will use the funds to enhance his immunology training through advanced courses and attending conferences.  

Ran Zhang, PhD 

Proposal Title: A fluorescence-based high throughput screening assay to target the Nsp14 ExoN of SARS-CoV-2 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Hongmin Li, Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology, R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy 

Emerging and evolving coronaviruses present challenges to researchers as they must continually advance their understanding of antiviral therapies.  

With her expertise in veterinary medicine, microbiology, and virology, Ran Zhang aims to provide valuable insights into potential antiviral drug development for coronaviruses. 

“Given the current global emphasis on antiviral research, particularly considering recent pandemics, there's a heightened demand for professionals with specialized knowledge in antiviral drug development. I want to contribute to groundbreaking discoveries that can have a profound effect on public health,” said Zhang. 

With the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship, Zhang will research the role of non-structural protein 14 (nsp14) in coronaviruses' replication, particularly SARS-CoV-2, and develop a high-throughput screening assay to identify inhibitors of nsp14 activity. The funds and mentorship allow Zhang to design, implement, and test experiments that will help her understand viral replication mechanisms and add to the development of antiviral therapies. 

Women’s health, the microbiome and how bacteria can affect cancer

Science Talks Podcast Episode 48 Featuring Dr. Nicole Jimenez
Dr. Nicole Jimenez uses a microbiological lens to improve women’s health, studying bacterial vaginosis, gynecological cancers, and endometriosis.
BIO5 Institute

Unfortunately, many aspects of women’s health are underfunded and understudied. Better understanding women’s health conditions and microbiomes can help lead to better health outcomes and improve the quality of life. Amy Randall-Barber from the BIO5 Institute was joined on Science Talks by Dr. Nicole Jimenez, currently in the Melissa Herbst-Kralovetz lab, at the University of Arizona College of Medicine — Phoenix with a focus on women’s health research. She received her doctorate from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and was awarded two postdoctoral fellowships in 2023, one from the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona and the other from the BIO5 Institute. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


ARB: Before we get started, I’d like to ask a few icebreaker questions. What’s one of your nicknames? 

I don’t have a unique nickname, just Nikki.  

But I was thinking more about this. I play Dungeons and Dragons, and one of my character’s names is Sin Nombre, which means ‘without name’. And the funny thing is that my PI, Melissa, worked early in her career on a virus called the Sin Nombre virus. I recently found this out and thought it was so interesting and serendipitous! 


ARB: That’s too cool!  

What’s your hidden talent? 

I would say my hidden talent would be cooking, and more recently mixology. During the pandemic, I was working on my dissertation, but I also picked up mixology. More recently, I've been focusing on non-alcoholic cocktails. I have many different wood burning tips for smoking as well as different bitters. It's a really fun experience. With the no-alcohol craze coming around, you still want to socialize and create a beautiful experience to share with others. 

ARB: What’s your favorite drink to make? 

As far as an alcoholic drink is concerned, I would say a Negroni. That has Campari, gin and some other bitters in it. Then for non-alcoholic, I usually make a rose mule with rose syrup and ginger. 


ARB: The rose mule sounds delicious. If I come to Phoenix, you’ll have to make me one! 

Let’s get into your research. What is your current research and what got you interested in it? 

I was recruited to the University of Arizona to work on the microbiome. In my graduate career, I was working on the microbiome and its relationship to pregnancy and preterm birth. Here, I get to work on the microbiome, including rectal, vaginal, endometrial, and how it relates to gynecologic cancers as well as benign gynecologic conditions such as endometriosis and chronic pelvic pain.  

I got into this research because when I was picking my major at Arizona State University, I became a nutrition major since I wanted to see how environmental factors impact health. I learned about the gut microbiome, and it got me fascinated with how that impacted human health. And so, I switched my major to microbiology and stayed in this vein of research. 


ARB: I love to hear those kind of journey stories and what the pivotal moments are.  

Can you tell us about the overall research goals of your lab? 

The Herbst-Kralovetz lab focuses on women's health research. We incorporate metabolomics, microbiome, and immunoproteomics to better understand how certain conditions occur. We also think about better ways that we can modulate the microbiome to have better health outcomes.  

Right now, our focus is on gynecologic cancers. Mostly cervical cancer and endometrial cancer, as well as these benign gynecologic conditions. Some of them have similar characteristics to cancers such as adenomyosis — an overgrowth of cells in the muscles of the uterus — as well as endometriosis and chronic pelvic pain. 


ARB: Can you tell us about the most exciting part of your research and how it fits in to those overall goals? 

As a woman working in the women's health space every day, I discover something different. It took me researching in this area to learn about the different symptoms. The most exciting part is not just learning all that information, but also trying to create change in the management of those symptoms.  

We're creating early diagnostics. For example, it currently takes six to seven years for a patient to get diagnosed with endometriosis. And that's not acceptable. My social science background has helped me understand some of these discrepancies and why they're happening.  


ARB: How do they diagnose endometriosis? 

Usually it's through symptoms, MRIs or other diagnostics. To fully understand endometriosis, you have to have surgery or biopsy, which is really invasive. Our lab is focusing on other ways that we can diagnose sooner and less invasively.  


ARB: That would be great for all women. 

Can you talk more about the difference between your two fellowships? Are the projects for your postdoctoral fellowships the same or different? 

Both fellowships that I was awarded are on a particular bacterium called Atopobium vaginae, now called Fannyhessea vaginae. During my graduate school career, we identified that this one bacterium is three. 

However, not a lot of research has been done on those three. Are they different from one another? Are they similar? This particular bacterium has been associated with bacterial vaginosis (BV), increased inflammation, and more recently, endometrial and cervical cancer. So, you can see how that ties into our lab’s overall goals.  

My project is focusing on those three newly identified species in our clinical cohorts for cervical and endometrial cancer. I’m also looking at associations for different clinical factors, metabolic profiles or immunoproteomic profiles.  

Then we also have this sub-study of my postdoctoral work in the Herbst-Kralovetz lab focused on a 3D cell culture model. It looks similar to human tissue, and we can infect these cells with bacteria. Then, we look at how they change the immune and metabolomic environment. That gives us better understanding of host pathogen interactions, such as how those bacteria are potentially progressing cancer. 


ARB: Have you had any influential mentors in your personal life or educational career? 

Many of my mentors are so important. I think I had my first mentor when I was in high school. And then when I went to undergrad, I had a whole bunch of different mentors because I was part of this scholar program called Los Diablos where you're assigned a mentor for each year that you're in the undergrad program.  

Then during graduate school, I obtained even more mentors, because I was part of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program and prep programs funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  

Currently, through the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship, I created a mentorship committee where I have mentors in Tucson and Phoenix who are guiding me not only on my project, but also on career advice. Right now, as a postdoc, I’m wondering, “Where am I going next? How do I get there? What advice do they have that made them successful?”  

Because giving back to the community is important to me, I’m currently mentoring students in our lab, which is predominantly 90% women.  

I want to get more women interested in science and women's health, which tends to be underfunded and under researched. So, I’m involved with the WISE program, the Women in Science and Engineering at the University of Arizona as well as the Los Diablos program. Now instead of just being a mentee, I'm a mentor. 


ARB: That’s full circle! Thank you for all your mentorship.  

What’s next for you? Do you tend to live in the moment or have a big plan? 

I think it takes a bit of both to be successful in academia and in science. For me, I like to plan out major goals and how I can get there. But you also have to be flexible. Your experiment might not go right, or a grant opportunity might just pop up and you have to quickly apply for it.  

My next step is to work towards a K-99 grant, so that it can transition me from my postdoc position to an academic professorship position. I'm working on a few other grants now, too, and our lab is working on publishing many, many manuscripts.  


ARB: We will definitely be on the lookout for those papers. Thank you again for joining us and sharing your story. 

From wetlands to the desert, how can we make agriculture more climate-friendly?

Science Talks Podcast Episode 47 Featuring Dr. Holly Andrews
Dr. Holly Andrews wasn't necessarily drawn to agricultural research, but her passion for ecosystem science, from parks to wetlands to the desert, has led her to tease apart the physics of soil to find more sustainable solutions for current agricultural practices.
BIO5 Institute

Adding fertilizers to our soil is not as simple as it seems. Plants use some of it, but unseen microbes metabolize fertilizers into gas, including nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to our changing climate. How can we not only understand how current agriculture affects our ecosystems, but also use that knowledge to advance new agricultural technology? Amy Randall-Barber from the BIO5 Institute interviewed Dr. Holly Andrews, a postdoctoral researcher working with both the Greg Barron-Gafford research group and Laura Meredith ecosystem genomics lab at the University of Arizona who is looking to answer both those questions. She received her PhD from the University of California, Riverside. In 2021, she was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship at the UArizona School of Natural Resources and Environment to work with the Meredith lab and in 2023 was awarded a BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship. She started a joint postdoc position across the Barron-Gafford and Meredith labs in August 2023.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


ARB: Before we get started, I’ll ask a couple of fun icebreaker questions not related to research. Can you give us a four-letter word, not a five-letter word, that starts with the letter B? 

My original response was going to be ‘Bear’ as in ‘Bear Down, go University of Arizona!’ Since I got these questions ahead of time, I was chatting with my friends and they said, obviously the four-letter word you're supposed to say is ‘BIO5.’ But five is a number, so I'm going with ‘bear’ for ‘Bear Down.’ 


ARB: Both are solid answers. Next question, what is your favorite Catalyst Café order? For those who don't know, the Catalyst Café is our resident BIO5 Institute café. My personal favorite is the prickly pear lemonade. 

I also like the prickly pear lemonade, and all their lemonade and tea combinations. I believe they have a good passion fruit tea, too. 

ARB: I was told today to try their pomegranate lemonade! 

You graduated from the University of California, Riverside with your PhD. Are you a native Californian or where are you from? 

I grew up in central Ohio near the Columbus metropolitan region. I did my bachelor's degree at southwestern Ohio at Miami University, and then did a master's at the University of Michigan.  

After experiencing the cold, cold winters in Michigan, I thought, ‘I need to get out of here and go to the southwest.’ That's when I moved to California to start my PhD, and I have not wanted to leave because now I'm in Tucson! 


ARB: It’s a little hot here compared to California. What brought you to the University of Arizona? 

My background is in ecology, and I'm interested in ecosystem science. There are so many ecosystem facilities, Biosphere 2 for example, around the University of Arizona campus. Early on in my PhD, I decided I wanted to come here next for a postdoc. That's what led me to write an NSF postdoctoral proposal with Laura Meredith, which luckily got funded, and then come here. 


ARB: I’ve always been curious about that process. You didn’t know Laura Meredith ahead of time, but you learned about her work during your PhD and decided that is the kind of lab you wanted to work in? 

Right. My PhD research looked at gaseous emissions from soils, which is what her lab specializes in. One of my mentors early on in my PhD was Rachel Gallery, another faculty member at the UArizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment. She suggested Laura as a great person to write a proposal with because I wanted to add new skills to my research toolbox.  

I ended up cold emailing Laura and saying, ‘Hey, I have this topic I'm interested in, would you like to write this proposal together?’ And she said ‘Yes’. It ended up being a great collaboration, writing the proposal together and then working with her. Since then, I've picked up many new skills that I will carry forward into my career. 


ARB: That’s awesome. There’s a whole culture here around ecosystem science. Laura is terrific, she’s worked with us many times. 

What first introduced you to the idea of being a researcher – your ‘aha’ moment in your life? 

I feel like I stumbled into it, but I've always been interested in wildlife biology from an early age.  

My parents are outdoorsy people, especially my dad. They got me involved in local metro parks and volunteer activities. From there, I liked being outside and learning about nature. I was also into music. For a while, I was trying to decide which career path I wanted to take and ultimately landed on biology.  

My freshman year of college, I randomly ran into a faculty member who was looking for undergrads to work in his lab. And it snowballed from there.  

My ‘aha’ moment would be during my junior year of my undergraduate degree. I applied for a fellowship with the EPA, because I was interested in government research and environmental protection. Unfortunately, it's a program that was cut in recent years from the EPA budget. But it was a way to get undergrads involved in research through government labs and agencies. I did an internship program with one of the ecology divisions on the east coast in Rhode Island working in wetlands.  

It was a great experience because they pushed me to design my own experiment and collect the data. I went through the whole scientific process myself with help from my mentors. I was included in a couple of publications that came out of that work. I think it was that moment where I thought, ‘I can do this.’ 

I felt valued as a contributor to science, even though I was still at the undergraduate level.  

From there, I saw research as a potential career. It was fun to do those experiments and learn more about wetland degradation. We were looking at how wetlands along the east coast are being degraded by climate change, as well as urbanization.  

Runoff causes wetlands to lose their resilience that can help counteract hurricanes and other extreme weather events. It was a learning experience to contribute new data and knowledge to this important topic of making sure our ecosystems continue to be sustainable in the face of a changing landscape and climate change. 


ARB: That’s very interesting.  

You had two fellowships at the same time for about eight months at the University of Arizona and they overlapped. Were the projects for each of the fellowships the same or different? 

The projects are tackling two sides of the same research question. 

My NSF fellowship tackles agricultural systems and nitrogen cycling in the soil. When we are adding fertilizer to agricultural fields, where does that fertilizer go? We know a small fraction ends up in the plants; we add fertilizers to help the plants grow. But it's not all getting there. Instead, we know that a lot is lost to the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. The number one source of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, is from agricultural soils. That's produced by soil microbial communities, and I want to understand how that happens. 

I don't necessarily want to say, ‘can we engineer our soils?’ But can my research inform how we use fertilizer in our agricultural systems to make them more climate-friendly? Can we make sure when farmers spend money on buying fertilizer it gets into plants? 

I was doing stable isotope analyses, where we injected isotopically labeled fertilizer into the soil to track that process in the field. We want to see where the fertilizer goes – is it incorporated into microbial biomass, so into DNA itself? How much of it is released as gases? How much of it is getting into plants and how are plants using it once they acquire it?  

My BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship builds off that by looking at how nitrogen gases move through the soil, and then leave the soil to go into the atmosphere. Without getting too far into the weeds of the nitrogen cycle – it can be complicated to talk about – there are different ways that these gases can diffuse through the soil. Microbes can eat these gases and use them for their own metabolism. We're trying to track how much of these gases microbes consume and produce. Plus, how fast do gases move through the soil? How does that relate with water because we're irrigating soils? If you're adding water, it can slow the diffusion and movement of those gases through the soil.  

We are teasing apart the physics of the soil system, rather than the biology and some of the other mechanics of agricultural soils. In a way, both these projects are related to nitrogen metabolism in agriculture and fertilizer use, but from two different methodological approaches.  


ARB: You’re from the Midwest area and I know there’s a lot of farming there. Did you stumble into this area of research or is there a relationship with agriculture that led you down this path? Where did that curiosity come from? 

It’s funny you asked this question, because I really did not. I was kind of anti-agriculture research when I was first thinking about a direction. I enjoyed working in wild lands, and another reason I moved to the southwest for my PhD was to work in desert systems specifically. 

But I keep finding myself working in agriculture, because it's an important problem we need to address in thinking about the future of society. How are we going to feed everyone and how do we feed everyone in a sustainable way?  

There are all these interacting pieces related to society, wild lands and ecosystems that you can ask in the context of an agricultural system. And so, I find myself coming back to agriculture.  

What I'm finding is that it's more complicated than we think from an ecological perspective. Most people tend to think of agricultural systems as very simplified ecosystems where we are growing one type of crop in one field area. They think there are no interesting questions to ask, but we're finding out that soil is very complex. It's hard to tease apart what's going on in these soils, even though we might think it's a simple question. 


ARB: I'm sure these last eight months have been busy keeping up with both projects, but the NSF fellowship has now ended. So now you just have one fellowship that you're working on. Do you see yourself staying at the University of Arizona? 

I would love to stay here, and I've been trying to find something more permanent.  

I started a new postdoc position, which is split across two labs, in the Barron Gafford lab that is also in agriculture. It’s focusing on agrivoltaics, which is the mixing solar panels and solar energy with agricultural cropping systems and different types of agricultural systems. 

The idea is that we bring together our energy and our food in the same land area. There was a report sent out across the university about sustainable agriculture in the future, and agrivoltaics was mentioned as one of those possibilities. This is still very new research. We can ask similar questions in agrivoltaics that we've asked in other agricultural systems, but we might get different answers. What works well in traditional agriculture might not work as well, and we need to think about optimizing the efficiency of that system to be more sustainable. At the same time, we're using less land area to get multiple types of outputs that are useful to society.  

I'm excited to move forward and combine my previous work in the Meredith lab and apply those same ideas in an agrivoltaic setting in the Barron Gafford lab. It's been nice to have this split position where I can focus on one common study site but ask different questions at different scales. In the Meredith lab, I've been focusing on tiny spatial scales, looking at what's going on immediately next to the plant in the soil. And in the Barron Gafford lab, we're zooming out to the field level.  


ARB: What does voltaic mean? 

Voltaic is shorthand for anything that produces voltage, which in this case would be solar panels. If you split the word “agrivoltaic,” there's the “agri,” which is agriculture, and the “voltaic” part which is solar panels. This word was generated from the idea that we're putting both of these on the same parcel of land. 


ARB: What is your overall personal research goal? Where do you want to see yourself in your research? 

I've been interested in research for a long time, and I want to keep doing it as part of my career. I want to combine research with some kind of educational perspective. When I talk about this, I want to be either in a traditional educational setting, like in an academic institution, or in a government setting that has a substantial outreach program associated with it.  

I think public education outside of academic institutions is equally as important. It connects us with broader policies that we're trying to change and broader thinking about sustainable systems. It’s important that everybody is on the same page about how we can potentially move forward. 

ARB: Have you had any influential mentors in your life, either personally or educationally?  

I would say all my academic advisors across undergraduate and graduate school.  

If I'm calling out specific names, I’d have to say my first mentor that I had in research, which was Beth Watson. She was the postdoc that was involved in the project at my EPA fellowship in Rhode Island. She was very inclusive and put me as a co-author on all her papers. I felt valued as a researcher by working with her. It connects with my ‘aha’ moment when I realized I can do research for a career. She was the one that started that process.  

Now, she’s faculty at Drexel University in Pennsylvania. We’ve kept in touch, especially during my PhD when I was doing remote sensing work with drones and flying drones to look at different aspects of ecosystem vegetation. She was doing the same thing in Pennsylvania, and we would email back and forth to talk about it. It was completely different from what we did together in Rhode Island. It's been great to keep in touch with her and she's been so supportive of my whole research career. I needed that when I was going through college. It was nice having women mentors in STEM because it was important for seeing myself in research.  


ARB: What’s next for you? Anything else you’d like to share about your future aspirations? 

I just started this new postdoc position, so I'll be sticking around at the University of Arizona for at least another year, potentially longer.  

I've been exploring options in the educational academic sector as well as the government, especially the USDA and USGS that are environmentally and agriculturally focused agencies. At this point, I’m trying to figure out where I’m going to land while continuing research on agriculture; combining energy, food and natural ecosystems and what ecosystem sustainability looks like in the long term.  


ARB: Thank you – I have a feeling one of these days we’re going to see your name on something awesome that you’ve discovered to help the future of humans on this planet. 

Are Spotted Lanternflies In Arizona? Everything to Know About the Invasive Insect

Spotted Lantern Fly

Springtime in Arizona brings back to life the Sonoran desert. It also means the return of pests we loathe like mosquitos, wasps and other bugs we try to avoid. There is one pest that we should be on the lookout for, as it could pose a serious problem for our beloved desert.

KXCI Thesis Thursday ~ Ariel Cheng

Alaska Mountains

Ariel Cheng a junior majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology with a minor in Theater. Has been working with Dr. Jana U’Ren at the BIO5 institute on campus for almost a year now. In her lab, she was able to travel to Toolik Field Station, an isolated research station in Alaska, where she conducted fieldwork for an independent project!