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Program in Ecosystems and Biogeochemistry

An Interdisciplinary Program

Princeton offers exciting and novel opportunities to EEB graduate students that are interested in studying ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles. Interests among faculty research groups in EEB (and in allied departments) cover an exceptionally broad range: from theoretical and mathematical models to hands-on fieldwork in ecosystems throughout the world; from studies of microbes in local environments to examination of the global carbon cycle and climate change; from consideration of dry savannas in Africa to studies of wet rainforests in Panama. Our program offers flexibility for each student to develop a program of research, training and courses that are custom-fit for his or her needs.  Students can conduct research and be advised by faculty across the different departments and allied programs. This broad flexibility gives students maximum opportunity to explore novel questions that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries, and to work collaboratively within interdisciplinary groups.

Our program is broadly organized around the theme of understanding ecosystems as complex adaptive systems, with particular emphasis in the following areas:

  • Integration of fundamental knowledge across theoretical and applied approaches in dealing with ecosystems and the biosphere as complex adaptive systems.
  • Integration from population biological to ecosystem approaches, especially in understanding the emergence of biocomplexity and ecosystem structure and functioning.
  • Exploration of the role of evolution in shaping ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles.
  • Application of state-of-the-art tools, including stable isotopes, coupled biogeochemical-climate models, and molecular genomic approaches.
  • Examination of climate-induced changes across different scales of observation, from local environments to state-of-the-art global earth system models.

EEB faculty examples of current research projects:

Lars Hedin • Understanding terrestrial ecosystems in the larger biosphere: modeling of biogeochemical cycles in the terrestrial biosphere, plant-nutrient interactions in terrestrial ecosystems, and theoretical analyses of plant strategies and evolution with the goal to understanding basic rules for how plant-nutrient interactions are organized.
Simon Levin • Understanding what makes ecological systems robust and resilient in the face of external perturbations, and how ecosystem patterns emerge over ecological and evolutionary time; socioeconomic linkages.
Steve Pacala • Studies the global carbon cycle and builds the land portion of the GFDL climate prediction system; works to develop solutions to the carbon and climate problem; dynamics of forests.

The following Princeton faculty also research with an ecosystem and biogeochemical component:
Michael Bender • glacial-interglacial climate change; the global carbon cycle.
Kelly Caylor • research addresses the coupled feedbacks between terrestrial vegetation and surface hydrological dynamics, focusing on the causes and consequences of spatial patterns in plants and their accompanying root systems within water-limited landscapes.
Michael Celia • research include groundwater hydrology, ecohydrology, numerical modeling, contaminant transport simulation.
Peter Jaffe • researches the physical, chemical, and biological processes that govern the transport and transformation of pollutants in the environment and their application toward the remediation of contaminated.
François Morel • work deals with the oceans, focusing on the grand question of what physical and chemical factors control the growth and activity of phytoplankton in the sea.
Michael Oppenheimer • science and policy of the atmosphere, particularly climate change and its impacts with the aim to understand the potential for “dangerous” outcomes of increasing levels of greenhouse gases by exploring the effects of global warming on ecosystems such as coral reefs, on the ice sheets, and on sea level.
Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe • researches the dynamics of the interaction between climate, soil, and vegetation.
Daniel Sigman • studies the environmental dynamics of the biologically-important elements, at scales ranging from single-celled organisms to the global biosphere; analytical research focus is on the isotope ratios of nitrogen used to investigate the biogeochemistry of modern and ancient environments, the ocean in particular.
Bess Ward • diversity of functional groups in microbial nitrogen cycle; denitrification and nitrification; nitrogen cycling in marine, estuarine and Antarctic Lake environments; microbial (bacteria and phytoplankton) processes in biogeochemistry.

Recent Ph.D. thesis titles

  • Symbiotic N2 fixation in tropical forests: Scaling from individuals to ecosystems
  • Determinants and dynamics of the global distribution of the savanna and forest biomes.
  • Snails at three scales: Interplay of stream hydrology and hydraulics with the morphology, dispersal and distribution of Elimia proxima
  • Spatial ecology of Chinook salmon in the Pacific northwest
  • The ecology and evolution of nitrogen fixation and nutrient limitation at multiple time scales
  • Theoretical and empirical perspectives on the dynamics of U.S. forests
  • Isotopic evidence for the climate dependence of nitrogen cycles across old tropical rainforest, Mt. Haleakala, Hawaii

Allied Programs
Our program is further supported by unique opportunities for research and training in allied external programs:

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies • Research and intellectual think-tank in the areas of ecosystem biology and global biogeochemical cycles.  Located in Millbrook, NY.
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Panama) • Access to research opportunities in diverse tropical ecosystems across the Barro Colorado National Monument in Panama
Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory • State-of-the-art coupled climate-earth system models. GFDL works cooperatively in NOAA to advance its expert assessments of changes in national and global climate through research, improved models, and products.

fixing nodules of a leguminous tropical forest tree
Nitrogen fixing nodules of a leguminous tropical forest tree, Inga punctata. Photo credit: Sarah Batterman
Student in the field
Measuring nitrogen fixation rates of tree nodules in a Panamanian forest. Photo credit: Sarah Batterman
Sampling water from a spring in a Northeastern hardwood forest
Sampling water from a spring in a Northeastern hardwood forest for chemical and isotopic analysis. Photo credit: Frederic Bartumeus