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Events

Wall delivers second President's Community Lecture

April 30, 2014
By Kate Hawthorne Jeracki

University Distinguished Professor Diana Wall reveals Lessons from an Antarctic Desert, transformation beneath our feet, and the impact of nematodes on global climate change.

Diana Wall answered questions from the audience and CSU President Tony Frank at the second President's Community Lecture on April 30.The biodiversity that we see all around us depends on the biodiversity we don’t see, in the soil beneath our feet. There can be hundreds of species of tiny animals, invertebrates and microbes in a single handful of dirt from a Fort Collins garden, constantly transforming organic matter into nutrients for plants. With so many creatures living and working in the soil, sorting them out for scientific study can be frustrating.

So when Diana Wall discovered that there are far fewer species of microscopic worms called nematodes in the pristine soils of Antarctica as in the deserts of New Mexico, she traded the heat for the cold – and made some fascinating discoveries on the way.

Wall, a Colorado State University Distinguished Professor and one of the world's foremost environmental scientists, told the audience of nearly 300 people at Wednesday’s President’s Community Lecture that while the valleys of Antarctica may be the driest place on Earth, they are not “the Valley of the Dead” described by early explorer Robert Scott.

“In fact, that’s what scientists believed until the 1980s, that the soils there were sterile,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Scientists have found algae and cyanobacteria and several species of nematodes.”

Responses to environmental changes

In Antarctica, a nematode can be at the top of the food chain, Wall said in her presentation, “Lessons from an Antarctic desert: The hidden world and response to climate change.” She discussed two species of the tiny worms that live in different environments in the cold desert -- one wet and one dry – that have been the focus of her research.

“When we talk about climate change and where species will live in the future, one of the things we need to know is how the species responds to changes in the environment,” Wall explained. And yes, she responded to a question from the audience, there is global warming.

Wall has been working in Antarctica for over 20 years, and is part of the multi-university Long Term Ecological Research program. Recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and winner of last year’s Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, she has become a leading voice on international climate science and soil health. In fact, the secretariat of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative resides in the CSU School of Global Environmental Sustainability, where Wall is the director.

Interdisciplinary teams

“Our challenge is to transform knowledge to be useful in the future,” she said. “The lesson from Antarctica is that we have to have all the pieces of the puzzle to solve problems. We need the perspectives of the geochemists, the molecular biologists, the engineers all working together; SoGES allows us to bring the expertise of CSU together in interdisciplinary research teams to respond to issues rapidly and think about the future.”

The President’s Community Lecture Series is a gift to the Fort Collins community in honor of the city’s 150th birthday. Colorado State University President Tony Frank, who introduced Wall, said the free lectures highlight the very best the University has to offer.

The next lecture will take place in September, featuring Lori Peek, associate professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at CSU. Peek studies vulnerable populations in disaster, with a special emphasis on the experiences of low-income families, racial and ethnic minorities, women, and children.