Meet Dr. Kelly M. Andersen, an ecologist studying plant-soil interactions in the Amazon Fertilisation Experiment!

What is your scientific background?

Visiting her alma mater Unversity of Wisconsin-Madison Union Terrace
Visiting her alma mater Unversity of Wisconsin-Madison Union Terrace -Kelly Andersen

I grew up in the University town of Madison, Wisconsin, USA where I did my undergraduate degree in Conservation Biology. I hated winter and always wanted to study the tropical forest. I took the first job that would take me to Central America: an internship with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. This led to a research assistant job on the most studied tropical forest in the world: Barro Colorado Island (BCI) in Panama at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). At STRI, I was introduced to staff scientists and visiting researchers from around the world and Panama quickly became my home and STRI my academic family. While working on BCI, I met my Ph.D. advisor who was starting up a long-term research project in Fortuna Forest Reserve (Fortuna) in the mountains of western Panama.

How did you choose your field of study?

One of my main interests in tropical forests is understanding patterns of species diversity. How can so many tree species coexist? Why do the specific tree species in a forest change with geographic distance? The Fortuna Forest Reserve in Panama turned out to be the ideal place to examine these questions because the forests harbor a high diversity of species and the species changed rapidly in a very heterogeneous premontane landscape. My Ph.D. (University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana) focused on how soil nutrients influenced understory palm species distributions using a series of observational surveys and experiments. I continued working in western Panama as a Postdoctoral Fellow examining plant-soil interactions, this time to test whether coexisting plant species could use different types of nitrogen. Fast forward a couple of postdocs in the US and I found myself in new frontiers in the pursuit to understand more about how soil nutrients affect tropical forests: I moved to the UK to work in Brazil.

Which topic are you working on at the moment?

A big tree with buttress roots at the Amazon Fertilisation Experiment (AFEX) site near Manaus, Brazil. – Kelly Andersen

My current research project is the Amazonian Fertilisation Experiment (AFEX) based in Manaus, Brazil. With a group of international researchers, we are testing the hypothesis that carbon cycling in tropical forests is influenced by soil nutrient availability. Large-scale experiments like AFEX are important because research networks such as RAINFOR and the Center for Tropical Forest Science (CTFS) have shown that across tropical forests, carbon dynamics (tree growth and mortality, soil carbon storage, respiration, etc.) vary depending on soil type. However, because tree species and climate also vary across tropical forests, the only way to show whether differences in carbon cycling is caused by soil nutrients or other factors is to conduct an experiment. In AFEX, we use a large-scale (50 x 50 m plots), long-term (5–10+ years) experimental design where we manipulate soil nutrient availability and measure carbon dynamics in the soil and plants (above- and belowground). Specifically, we add phosphorus, nitrogen, and cations (potassium, calcium, magnesium) in a factorial design and measure carbon-based processes, such as soil respiration, tree growth, and leaf physiology.

Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

Large scale nutrient manipulation experiments are nothing new. However, there are comparatively few in tropical forests. There have been six. Ever. Of these, only four of these are currently running. Two of the experiments are in Central America on relatively nutrient rich soils. The Amazon Basin represents up to 50% of tropical forest carbon uptake globally, despite having relatively nutrient poor soils.(?!) It is a paradox that the most species-rich forests occur on some of the most nutrient-poor soils. If we want to understand how soil nutrients influence species and functional diversity or how soils regulate carbon dynamics in tropical forests, we need an experiment in the Amazon Basin. The data generated from the AFEX project will give insights to a whole range of processes that can inform Earth System models and can help us understand how one of the largest and most diverse forests in the world functions.

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

The hardest parts of this work are also the best parts. I’m constantly on the go. Traveling every couple of months for months at a time to Brazil. I have the opportunity to work with many students and researchers at the Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) in Manaus, Brazil. The biogeochemistry lab at INPA is involved in big projects that will change our understanding of how Amazonian forests function and how resilient they are to global changes. However, the transient lifestyle also means you miss out on some opportunities because you can only be in one place at any given time. From seminars to workshops, creating meaningful professional and personal relationships becomes difficult. Being connected to so many places and people at once can also mean that the connections are not as strong as they could be.

What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?

When I start to feel disconnected, I rely on the science and the enthusiasm of other scientists to reinvigorate my motivation. This can be as simple as reading an exciting new paper or getting a paper published. Often it comes from the positive energy of my students and colleagues in Brazil or Panama. *Motivation is contagious.* It is important to celebrate the smallest achievements because this is where you find the motivation and the grit to make science happen.

Tourist selfie on our way to the March for Science-London – Kelly Andersen

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

As scientists, we have a responsibility to acknowledge cultural biases and unconscious sexism and work towards a better culture in science. Women need to work together and promote other women at all stages. Men need to accept and acknowledge when they are called out for biased actions or sentiment. The old boys club is prevalent in science, directly and indirectly discouraging female scientists. Pay gaps, maternal vs. paternal leave, on top of unconscious biases against women in science all directly inhibit or discourage women from staying in science. The system will not change until the culture changes. That is why it is so important for women to break out of the social constructs placed upon them and stand up, speak out, and science.

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?

I only recently became aware of the fact that it is [still] difficult to be a female scientist. I think the University system is doing a fair job attracting women in STEM. All my STEM classes were majority female even through grad school and I had many opportunities to progress through my career. Now I’m at the science bottleneck where most women drop out of academia for one reason or another. In the UK, only 15% of ecology professors are female. It is only slightly better in the US. In our international project in Brazil, all the master’s students (4 of 4) and most of the Ph.D. students are women (3 of 4), but only one of the principle investigators is a woman (1 of 8). Our project is just another example of the gender-biased demography in ecology. For me, though, it serves as a hope knowing we are training the next generation of women scientists. Keeping women in STEM is a challenge that we all need to work at as a community to turn the obstacles into opportunities.

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

I’m a runner. It focuses me, calms me, energizes me and keeps me balanced. Having a healthy body and mind are extremely important in field biology. People often ask me what I’m training for. Fieldwork. Life. My next outdoor adventure. Running is a great way to #optoutside when you are working in the lab or office. Not everyone is a runner, but I encourage everyone to find their activity. Science is a tough line of work with plenty of challenges and setbacks. We all need to let that frustration out in constructive ways.


You can visit Kelly’s website, and follow her on Twitter!