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Turning the tide

Scholarships elevate research of rising climate-change scientist

Ellen Stuart-Haentjens, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’19/LS) spent much of her time wading through wetlands while studying for her Ph.D. in Integrative Life Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research on forest and wetland carbon storage produced findings that could help predict and prevent future effects of climate change.

“Knowing how climate change is impacting how much carbon these ecosystems can store now helps us make predictions of future ecosystem health,” she says. “When carbon is stored in our natural ecosystems, it prevents it from being where we don’t want it: in the atmosphere contributing to climate change.”

Funding from the Thomas F. Huff Graduate Scholarship, Stuart-Haentjens says, helped her purchase top-of-the-line equipment to elevate a project measuring how stocks of carbon in wetland soil are impacted by tidal changes.

“Tidal freshwater wetlands are a really understudied ecosystem,” she explains. “The way tides move into and out of wetlands is slower than it is in the river, so I knew my measurements would not be as precise as I needed them to be, and I knew it would matter. The Huff money allowed me to purchase an array of loggers that can measure the tide with high precision. I was able to put them at each of my sites in the wetland and then tie that data to the tidal data and water level. That has been crucial because we know it’s important, but we don’t yet know to what extent.”

Now that she has graduated, Stuart-Haentjens is continuing her wetland research in a new position with the U.S. Geological Survey. She hopes her career will enable her to advance efforts to mitigate climate change.

“I’m passionate about research and looking into the data to see what it tells me,” she says. “I never want to stop asking questions.”