Q&A: Seeta Sistla

Seeta Sistla, assistant professor in the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department, specializes in soil ecology through the lens of global change science. “I work to characterize how factors such as agricultural land use, nutrient enrichment and climate warming affect plant-soil processes in natural and managed settings in a variety of land systems, from the Arctic to the tropics. In addition to combining field, laboratory and modeling approaches to understanding terrestrial systems, I often collaborate with social scientists to more deeply consider the feedbacks between human activities and ecosystems in an era of unprecedented change,” Sistla said.


Q: Why is soil health important?

A: Soil is the skin of the earth — it is essential for providing a suite of essential ecosystem services ranging from water purification and supporting plant growth to cycle nutrients and carbon storage. Soil is also arguably the most biodiverse habitat on earth. Yet, most people overlook soil as being inert, and most surface soils are deeply impacted by human activities. My most critical job as a professor is to help others to recognize the value of biologically functioning, intact soils systems for ensuring agricultural productivity, potable water availability, and a stable climate system.

Q: You have several active ongoing research projects both locally and in the Arctic. How are they all connected?

A: All of my scientific activities focus on interactions between soils and plants under changing environmental conditions. My research in the Arctic is centered on understanding how tundra carbon and nutrient cycling responds to accelerated warming and novel fire stressors, while my research in California focuses on land use activities and their impacts on plant-soil interactions. While the settings are distinct, the overarching approach to my research is understanding how land systems respond to stressors and the implications of these responses to soil function (and thus the ecosystem services it provides).

Q: The National Science Foundation has awarded more than $1.3 million in funding to study Arctic systems. What is the significance there and how does it impact the larger environment?

A: A major component of my research is centered in the Arctic, where I have worked since 2004. High latitudes are a critical component of the global carbon cycle because they store nearly half of the world’s soil carbon and are experiencing unprecedented rates of warming and increasing fire frequency. In addition to significant release of carbon dioxide with increasingly large and frequent tundra fires, climate warming can accelerate carbon release from tundra soils by stimulating microbial decomposer activity. Beyond the extraordinary rate of change that Arctic systems are undergoing that directly affects Arctic residents, who are being forced to change their ways of life now in response to climate destabilization, Arctic terrestrial responses to warming are of grave concern for the climate system.

Q: What is the Polaris Project and how is it connected?

A: The Polaris Project is a National Science Foundationfunded project that supports arctic biogeoscience research projects for undergraduate students from socio-economic groups that are poorly represented in the discipline. Through the Polaris Project, I have begun a new research project in Alaska's Yukon- Kuskokwim Delta, studying the feedbacks between climate warming and fire disturbance, which is increasing in frequency across Arctic systems.

Q: What are some opportunities available to Cal Poly students through these ongoing research efforts?

A: I am always happy to support undergraduate and graduate research through my projects and welcome the new ideas and questions that students bring to the table. The Polaris Project supports students from across the U.S., and my other new Arctic project will include students in both field and lab work. Closer to home, I have a project studying the ecological impacts of large-scale solar array development in fallowed farmland that is currently led by Cal Poly undergraduate students. My favorite part of research is educating students to critically consider how land systems are responding to the myriad of human-driven changes they are experiencing and become reflective, inclusive scientists. It's also extremely satisfying to be working on research that can inform policy and improve resource decision-making, although that process is much slower and less tangible than the joys of working with students!

Q: How can the research being done be used in decision-making and conservation efforts in agriculture?

A: In general, my research seeks to increase the resilience of land systems to human-caused stressors and reduce environmental impacts. I'm excited to have a suite of research projects at the interface of environmental science and agriculture because there is so much potential for innovation at this juncture, and I love that students can so easily develop projects within these themes.


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