Episode 8: Meet Environmental Studies Professor Becky Hewitt
Host: Ivy Haight ’25
In this podcast, I introduce Professor Becky Hewitt, a new environmental studies professor with research focused in the arctic. She discusses her background, what goes into starting up a lab (more than you would think!), her hope in the midst of climate change, and more.
Podcast Overview (0:01)
Personal background and research (0:37)
Advice to past self and current college students (2:32)
Work that goes into setting up a lab (4:13)
Summary of current research and published paper (6:41)
Interest in the Alaska and Russia (11:52)
Hope in the future of climate change (13:58)
Publisher: Amherst STEM Network
Podcasts Coordinator: Julia Zabinska
Music Composer: Grace Geeganage
Image Source: https://www.amherst.edu/people/facstaff/rhewitt
Ivy Haight 0:01
Hello and welcome to the Amherst STEM Network podcast. My name is Ivy Haight, your host for today’s episode, where I talk to Professor Becky Hewitt. She is a new professor here at Amherst in the Environmental Studies Department. And she’s passionate about research in the Arctic. Today, I’ll be asking her about her background, some of the many things she does here, and some of her thoughts on climate change.
Intro Music 0:23
Ivy Haight 0:37
So, first of all, thank you Becky for talking with me today. I’m excited to give you an intro to the broader Amherst community that might be listening. And a belated welcome to Amherst, you started teaching just last semester, so we’re both relatively new here. And part of this is to give you a nice introduction to all the students that might be listening, so why don’t go ahead and start off by telling everyone a little bit about yourself, your background, and why you came to Amherst.
Becky Hewitt 1:09
Sure, thanks for having me. So, my name is Becky Hewitt, I’m an ecosystem and community ecologist. I teach environmental science related classes in the department of environmental studies, and my research is focused on issues related to ecosystem response in the arctic portions of the globe. We’re really looking at how ecosystems respond to things like wildfire disturbance, which have been amplified with climate warming, and then also how Arctic ecosystems are responding to direct warming. And we focus on plants and soil processes. And we’re particularly excited to study mycorrhizal fungi in our lab group. And thinking about how plant fungal interactions really sort of regulate how ecosystems respond to environmental change.
I am originally from New England, and then went up to Alaska to do my PhD. I was really passionate about working in Arctic and alpine environments, and so found myself up there. And then by way of Flagstaff, Arizona, I found myself here at Amherst College. Yeah, in January.
Ivy Haight 2:32
Cool, that sounds great. And looking back on kind of how you got here, do you have any advice that you wish someone would have told you in college, or just like, whenever in your life, about your studies, or future career paths, or just general advice?
Becky Hewitt 2:49
Let’s see, I was very lucky to have a number of really good mentors starting where I did my undergraduate degree, and I think that what keeps coming up when I’m talking to students here is just take advantage of being in this rich environment where, you know, you might have interest in science, you might have interest in the humanities, or in social sciences, and there’s just so many opportunities to engage with all of those subjects here. And sometimes that isn’t the case, once you might pursue one of those tracks through into graduate school, etc. There’s just, for me, at least personally, there was less opportunity to engage across my breadth of interest once I left my undergraduate program and became really focused on Arctic ecology and climate change. And so I think just taking advantage of this moment in time that you have here at Amherst College to explore many different interests, you never know where it’s going to take you. And so I think it’s just something to really marinate in while you’re here.
Ivy Haight 3:56
Yeah, I’ve definitely, definitely noticed that there are tons and tons of opportunities, even if you have no particular knowledge of a certain subject, just being able to dive into like an intro class or an info session or something about that.
Becky Hewitt 4:10
Ivy Haight 4:13
Speaking of that, since I started working in your lab this semester, I’ve kind of just started to realize how much work actually goes into setting up a brand new lab.
Becky Hewitt 4:22
Ivy Haight 4:24
The boxes, supplies and just everything. So for you, what has the process of setting up your lab been like? Because I know most people probably don’t know what actually goes into that. And what have some major challenges and rewards been?
Becky Hewitt 4:38
Those are great questions. It is an experience that I don’t think anyone can really get you ready for. You work as a student – I guess some people like yourself, you now are seeing what it’s like to set up a lab so you won’t go in blind to this process if you end up in this position – but I think you just don’t know when you work in a well-run lab the amount of time it took to select each instrument and contact each vendor and so it, it’s been a very time consuming process. But one that’s also really exciting because I can take these little bits of experiences from the different labs that I’ve worked in and decide, I want to have that kind of setup here. And I want students to be able to work on this here. And so that’s sort of the reward to that is that long term vision, and it helps me from being bogged down when the instrument doesn’t get delivered for months and months and months. I think many of us who are setting up labs now the main challenge is that time commitment that would always be there, but with COVID, the supply of many of the things that we need to get our work done, is really reduced. And so it just takes months, I mean, if not over half a year to get some things that I’ve honestly never thought about as ever being in short supply. And so those sorts of things take another level of planning, of thinking, I’m going to want to extract the DNA in soils next summer, I better order pipette tips now, because it’s going to take seven months for them to be delivered. So that’s, that’s been a challenge and stressful. So it’s just sort of the extra planning that I think that takes at this moment in time.
Ivy Haight 6:36
Yeah, I would not think that would take —
Becky Hewitt 6:39
Months! Yes, I know.
Ivy Haight 6:41
Yeah. And it’s also worth mentioning that you were doing all this while publishing a paper, which was just recently published a few weeks ago. Congrats again.
Becky Hewitt 6:52
Ivy Haight 6:53
So why don’t you give listeners a little summary of what you researched and what its implications are in the field of environmental studies.
Becky Hewitt 6:59
So the paper that just came out in ecography, was an effort led by a postdoc within our lab group Colin Maher, who’s at University of Alaska Anchorage. And this is the first paper out of this grant that we have right now, where we’ve been exploring whether or not the tree line in northern Alaska, is – the trees that are growing at treeline are limited by soil nutrient availability – so the prevailing hypothesis has been that treeline, this major vegetation boundary between the boreal forest and the tundra, will track a warming climate. So as it warms, trees will migrate north, and they’ll migrate up in elevation. And that has these really substantial impacts on the Earth’s albedo, or reflectance, which influences the energy budget. It also influences the carbon storage capacity of the Arctic ecosystem. And so what Colin did is he basically documented where the tree line occurs, which seems like something you would think we would know, but he did a lot of image processing, to basically draw a line of where it actually is occurring by looking at remote sensing imagery. And then he did some really sophisticated modeling to see: is it temperature? Is it precipitation? Are there soil factors that are most highly related or correlated with the position of the treeline? And so we have had this hypothesis based on empirically collected data from the field that it seems like it’s not temperature, it seems like it’s not moisture, and it seems like it might be nutrients, just from a more limited suite of studies. But he really made this a broad regional study with this spatial analysis. And what he has shown is that, indeed, there’s this really big mismatch; it’s much warmer north of where current treeline exists, so there has to be some other factor that’s limiting tree growth, at tree line, and then the ability of those trees to disperse and migrate as the climate warms, because the tree line is not tracking that warming climate. And so he also found other variables like precipitation are important, temperature is important. But interestingly, it was the presence of permafrost and the permafrost distribution that really turned out to be the surprising variable that was highly correlated with the tree line position. And so that supports our overall hypothesis for our current research, which is that cold soils, which are inherently nutrient poor because decomposition is slow nutrients aren’t being released in cold soils, that it’s in those environments that tree growth is very limited. And then the tree line is not tracking the warming air temperature, the warming climate. And so he shows this nicely across an area called the Brooks range and Alaska, which is the northern most treeline in that part of the Arctic part of the United States.
Ivy Haight 10:31
I think that’s really interesting, because I think a lot of times when we think of research, and when you’re publishing a paper and analyzing data, the success is viewed as “correlation.” But with what you just described, it seems like, a lot in a lot of cases before you get that, “okay, this is what’s causing it,” you have to go through a lot of phases of “nope, it’s not this. Nope, it’s not that,” so that’s probably pretty cool to finally be able to say, “okay, we think this might be what’s causing it?
Becky Hewitt 11:02
Yeah, I really like the way you’ve described that, and that describes the field very well. And how it’s sort of been applied within this part of the Arctic is, you know, temperature isn’t regulating everything. And then the next best idea that people came up with was, well, it probably is moisture. But then we saw a real lack of correlation between moisture and growth rates in this area. And so then we started looking at other main limiting factors, and nutrients are very limiting in tundra and boreal forest environments. And so we’re starting to accrue a data set that is presenting a nice story, suggesting that nutrients really are limiting to tree growth, and then the ability of treeline to move into tundra.
Ivy Haight 11:52
Yeah, and then with your PhD from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, plus kind of your history and now current research in the tundra, what interests you so much about this climate and ecosystem and place in the world?
Becky Hewitt 12:05
Yeah, I think that’s such a good question. There is, I mean, I could go on about how it’s so important to global carbon cycling, you know, what happens in the Arctic really has the potential to strongly influence global climate because it acts as this massive carbon storage unit, particularly in terms of the carbon stored in permafrost soils. And that is very compelling and it does get me up in the morning, and it makes me excited to do my research in Alaska and in Russia. But I think that I also just love the landscape there. It’s a beautiful place to visit and the people that live there – it really is just a different lifestyle experience than anywhere that I’ve ever been before. It’s quiet and it’s sort of a simple lifestyle. When I was in graduate school, I lived in a cabin with no running water.
Ivy Haight 13:08
Becky Hewitt 13:09
And it was just sort of it’s a really different approach to the day up there. And I like that, in that sense, the lifestyle slows you down, even if your science is fast paced. Yeah, there’s just something about being in the north and the Northern Lights and that incredible seasonality with the long winters and then the summers, you know, with broad daylight all day long that, for me, is invigorating on many different levels beyond my intellectual interest in biogeochemical cycles.
Ivy Haight 13:48
Yeah, I’ve seen amazing pictures and heard great things, and I’d definitely like to go someday.
Becky Hewitt 13:54
Yeah, hopefully, we’ll have a field season if the COVID situation improves.
Ivy Haight 13:58
Yeah. Okay. So this next question, I actually have to credit one of my friends for, because, upon telling her that I’m a prospective environmental studies major, she asked, how is someone so involved in environmental studies not so sad about the fate of the world all the time?
Becky Hewitt 14:18
Ivy Haight 14:19
So with that, I’ll ask you one final question, which is, what gives you hope in the future of climate change?
Becky Hewitt 14:24
Yeah, that is such a great question, and it’s one that we really explore in the beginning of the climate change class that I teach. I really think that for myself, some of the most – how do I say this – the most passionate, the smartest, the most engaged people that I know are all working on this issue, and so that just brings me hope that we will be able to address this, both through our direct actions through what we are addressing with our work with our careers, but also through working with students who are going to be on the frontlines of facing this and implementing solutions. And so I really feel like many of us that know a lot about climate change, because it is our work, are actually some of the most hopeful people. And it’s because we’re inspired by the people around us. And I really do believe that we can implement change and find solutions.
Ivy Haight 15:30
Yeah, that’s really great to hear coming from someone in the field, that a lot of people do have hope. And I think that’s a really positive note to end on. So with that, I’d like to say thank you, again for joining us on the podcast.
Becky Hewitt 15:44
Ivy Haight 15:46
It was great being able to hear more about Professor Hewitt’s research, and I know I learned a lot about her background, all the work she does with her lab, and her hopes in the midst of climate change. Thanks for joining us on today’s podcast and remember, stay curious, stay informed and stay tuned for more.