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Field Work

Biogeochemist Pamela Matson demonstrates ways the natural world can be protected without harming its people.

Glenn Matsumura

DIRT IN THE BALANCE: Pam Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences, works with graduate student Eve Hinckley in the Napa Valley, where Hinckley is studying what happens to the sulfur that is used to control mildew in vineyards. Matson conducted a similar study to determine how nitrogen-based fertilizers used in Mexico’s Yaqui Valley were helping pollute the Sea of Cortez.

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By Kara Platoni

Pamela Matson and Eve Hinckley are reclining amongst the pinot noir grapevines of the Napa Valley’s famed Carneros wine-making region, two connoisseurs searching for le mot juste. Young, they agree. Organic, suggests Matson. Alluvial, adds Hinckley. “Clay-ey,” pronounces Matson.

Clay-ey? Yep. They’re not talking wine. They’re talking dirt. Matson, a biogeochemist and the dean of Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences, rises from her crouch, leans on a shovel, and gazes appreciatively at the crumbly pit they have just excavated. “Nice soil, Eve,” she congratulates her graduate student.

The two have spent the entire morning on this hillside beneath a hazy blue-gray sky, digging up equipment Hinckley buried below the vines last year, checking it before the spring rains come. Each device, called a lysimeter, is rooted into the ground with clear plastic tubing. During the rainy season, these “roots” will draw water from the ground and store it so Hinckley can analyze its chemical content.

What she’ll find, most likely, is the source of another flavor the two women have been debating, this one most evident in the air. Hinckley says it reminds her of burning hay; Matson thinks it has a metallic edge. It’s sulfur, an anti-mildewing agent that farmers since Egyptian times have applied to vines. But sulfur can leech into waterways, or become sulfur dioxide, a greenhouse gas; and Hinckley, guided by her adviser, is trying to figure out what happens to the chemical after it’s sprayed on the vines.

This project echoes one Matson pioneered more than a decade ago in the wheat fields of Mexico’s Yaqui Valley. The 556,000-acre basin was a home of the Green Revolution, the mid-century movement that with new seeds and chemical fertilizers transformed the lives of subsistence farmers throughout the world. But, by the 1990s, this agriculture had become a source of pollution and a contributor of greenhouse gases. The irrigated farmland drains into the storied Sea of Cortez, a hotspot of biological diversity. Matson’s research team discovered that runoff from heavily applied nitrogen-based fertilizers was creating a dead zone in a sea that normally teemed with life. She found herself in a showdown between agriculture and environmentalism—and sympathetic to both.

Matson has spent her career investigating how our pursuit of basics like food, shelter and work are changing the planet’s health. “The way we do agriculture does put strains on the environment and on resources, but we also need it,” she says. “Figuring out how to do it in a way that doesn’t have the harmful effects on the environment is the challenge.”

An ecologist who has worn nearly every laurel the subject area has to offer, Matson has been a key figure in developing a new brand of environmentalism: sustainability science. In a field that has often seemed to demand that we choose between meeting the needs of the natural world and those of its inhabitants, Matson has been a key figure in convincing decision makers—from individual farmers to political leaders—that we can do both. Her philosophy is simple but revolutionary: save the planet, save ourselves.

“I really was born for the tropics and grew up in Wisconsin,” deadpans Matson. The second oldest of five kids, she describes her childhood as “bland, blonde and blah”—she was the good girl who had to scrounge up marginal misdeeds to admit at confession. Her grandmother nurtured her love of the outdoors, teaching her to ride horses and taking her on nature walks. Where other people see the trees, Matson learned to see the forest: a complex system of species dependent upon each other for survival.

She studied biology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but realizing that her ideal job—“old-time naturalist”—didn’t exist any more, she spent her postgraduate years managing a music shop and growing orchids. But the mid-’70s were too exciting a time for an environmentalist to sit on the sidelines: Thanks to the brand-new Environmental Protection Agency, clean air and water were becoming policy issues, and scientists were finding jobs preventing pollution. “I realized, I gotta get back to science,” Matson recalls. “I really wanted to use what I knew to help work on environmental issues.”

Her first stop was Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where Matson found the three stars that would guide the rest of her career. The first was a deep love of research—that combination of muddy fieldwork, long lab hours, and the painstaking writing of reports to explain how her results could solve real-life problems. She also developed a profound respect for multidisciplinary cooperation. Indiana University had the nation’s first interdisciplinary environmental science program, in which students took classes in economics and politics alongside their science coursework. Finally, her master’s project on how logging changes a forest’s soil “basically set the groundwork for everything I’ve done since,” Matson recalls. “I found out what I loved early on—that combination of understanding how a whole system works, how humans are affecting that system and what are the consequences of that.”

Next, she whipped through a PhD in forest ecology at Oregon State in three years, a feat made more impressive by the fact that the equipment crucial to her work, a highly controlled greenhouse called a phytotron, was 3,000 miles away at Duke University. In North Carolina, Matson discovered something else crucial to her work: ecosystem ecologist Peter Vitousek, who in short order was about to become Pam Matson’s husband, a Stanford professor and the reason for a potentially nightmarish commute.

Matson had completed a postdoc at the University of North Carolina when the cross-country relationship posed by Vitousek’s new Stanford job arose. Luckily, the NASA/Ames Research Center in Mountain View was looking for someone to do everything Matson loved most: perform original research, collaborate with scientists from diverse backgrounds, and spend months in the forest. She was hired in a heartbeat.

Matson and her NASA colleagues studied the atmosphere above the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. They concentrated initially on the effects of urban pollution, but the project soon became one of the first close looks at how deforestation and other land-use decisions were changing Earth’s climate.

At first, it was exciting: scientists love to get results, and Matson certainly was measuring high levels of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. But a bad feeling was creeping up on her: the research was thrilling, but what it signified was scary. “I can’t recall the exact moment that I had the realization—maybe it surfaced slowly,” she muses. “I really loved the scientific chase—trying to learn new things and understand phenomena that no one understands is really fun and engrossing. But it was kind of like emerging for a moment out of that intellectual focus to realize my wonderful scientific challenge was also something that could have serious consequences for the planet.”

Indeed, many people reacted to the alarming news of climate change by casting blame, often at the farmers who clear-cut the Amazon for cropland. Matson, however, understood why they did it—to provide for their families. “People think about the tropical forest as though it was this pristine, pure thing, but people are living there and changing it all the time,” she says. “I began shifting from having sort of an environmentalist point of view—that is, we need to protect our environment—to recognizing that people are doing these things like clearing forests for a reason, to grow food or for economic benefit. It’s not inherently bad—it’s just that it does have some negative effects.”

What to do? Stop farming and restore the rainforest to its natural state? Matson dismissed that as unrealistic. “My system now was one that had people in it,” she says. With that came a new goal: sustainable development, or providing for human needs while protecting environmental resources for future generations. It was, she felt, too big a challenge to be tackled by the scientific community alone. “I was becoming frustrated with the idea that all we were doing is understanding problems,” she says. “We weren’t trying to help solve any.”

Just as Matson was attracted to ecosystems by the complexity of the forest, she was now drawn to human systems by the complex needs of their inhabitants. In 1992, Matson left NASA for UC-Berkeley’s environmental science policy management program. There she hoped to collaborate with social scientists and build a sustainability science community—“a community that was not just interested in how the biophysical world is being affected by people, but that is worried about those people and looking for ways to meet their needs.”

Matson wasn’t the first or only scientist to push for sustainability, but she helped this new community coalesce and form common goals. Bringing together academics with such disparate outlooks wasn’t easy. Matson recalls her first time co-teaching with a sociologist. “We scared the students, because we debated,” she says with a laugh. Grant funders didn’t know what to make of her cross-disciplinary approach either, Peter Vitousek recalls. “Our system for evaluating and funding work makes it difficult for the sort of work she does to break through. When you start working across as many fields as she is and asking as many big questions as she is, it’s hard to get out of the economist reading it and saying, ‘This isn’t the absolute cutting edge in economics,’ and the microbiologist saying, ‘There is a better genetic technique than the ones you are using.’ You have all the different communities saying you’re not right on the forefront of the narrowest new work in their field, and in fact, if you are trying to synthesize across many fields, you can’t be.”

Yet Matson’s reputation as a scientist was growing. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1994 and was named a MacArthur Fellow—receiving that much-coveted “genius” grant—in 1995. In 1996, she embarked upon the Yaqui Valley project in Mexico, which would become the cornerstone of her professional work and a model of interdisciplinary cooperation. Working with Stanford associate economics professor Rosamond Naylor and Mexican agronomist Ivan Ortiz-Monasterio, she sought to develop farmer-friendly ways to mitigate the toll that intensive agriculture was taking on the Sonoran desert.

“It was really quite new,” Roz Naylor says of their collaborative approach. “We didn’t go down there and have Pam do her side while I did mine and at some point we hook up to tell each other what we’d learned. I spent time in the field with her learning the techniques, and from that I drew conclusions about what I should be asking in the farm surveys. She talked to farmers with me and said, ‘Okay, based on what the farmers are saying, I’d better set up my plots in the following way.’ ”

They realized that the farmers were using far more nitrogen-based fertilizer than necessary. The excess was escaping into the air, sometimes in the form of greenhouse gases, or washing into the Sea of Cortez. There, it caused enormous blooms of algae that would die, then decompose with the help of other aquatic organisms that sucked oxygen from the water. The result was an anaerobic “dead zone” that, as Matson says, “kills anything that can’t move and drives away anything that can.” This was an environmental disaster in the making—the Sea of Cortez is home to an unusually diverse rainbow of marine plants, mammals and fish. It’s not a place that can afford a dead zone.

Why so much fertilizer? Farmers believed plenty of fertilizer would guarantee a good harvest. Overuse was encouraged through subsidies and by local credit unions that acted as lending organizations/trade associations. The farmers also applied fertilizer long before planting seeds, not realizing that much of it was escaping into the air and water. Matson’s group proposed an alternative: applying less fertilizer later in the season would reduce nitrogen loss tenfold. The practice also would save money—farmers were wasting a chunk of their potential profits on nutrients that never got to the crops. Slam dunk, right?

Wrong, says Matson. “You think you have the win-win that makes sense economically and environmentally, but it’s not necessarily going to work because you still need to understand who makes decisions,” she says. The researchers had underestimated the credit unions’ clout. Wary of untested methods, and wanting to ensure bumper crops (and therefore repayment of their loans), they urged farmers to pile it on.

Round two: the researchers invited the credit unions to participate in the project, and introduced them to devices called hand-held radiometers, which measure the nitrogen in a plant’s leaves, indicating if they need fertilizer. Reassured that farmers could use less, yet still administer fertilizer when necessary, the unions backed the researchers’ plan. For Matson, it was a pivotal lesson: working with the community’s power brokers turned research into reality.

When she wasn’t in Mexico, Matson was in Berkeley, and the constant bridge-crossing was becoming a problem for the two-academic family. By this time, Matson and Vitousek were the parents of newborn daughter Liana and son Matt. Matt had been born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that takes its biggest toll on the lungs. Doctors warned that he might not live past his teens. Although Matt, now a college freshman at Willamette University, has been remarkably healthy (she calls him her “miracle kid”), Matson was finding it difficult to juggle motherhood, research and her burgeoning role as an environmental policy adviser. After winning the no-strings-attached $260,000 MacArthur grant, Matson took some flack for telling The Scientist magazine that she planned to spend some of it on child care and taking the kids along on fieldwork. She says hiring a “third parent” allowed her and her husband “to work with focus and then be with the kids with focus.” It’s a decision—along with marrying the right guy—that she often cites when advising female students about how to balance family with academic ambition. In retrospect, she says, “A lot of women appreciated the comment, because it exposed a reality that women deal with all the time and that is such a difficult aspect of dual-career couples’ lives.”

Another change brought the family together. In 1997, Matson joined her husband at Stanford as the senior fellow at the Center for Environmental Science and Policy in the Institute for International Studies, then quickly became the center’s co-director. Some might think putting two top academics in related fields in close quarters would make them competitive, but they swear they’re not. “We are each other’s sounding boards and read each other’s papers and proposals,” says Matson. “For me, the best part is coming home and wanting to get my best friend’s thoughts and advice on what I’m dealing with.”

Still, because they have different last names, mild havoc sometimes ensues, as when they have to beg off writing letters of recommendation for each other or get asked to headline the same panel discussions. En route to a recent dinner at which they were both going to speak, says Vitousek slyly, “We were thinking this could be fun—we could act like we didn’t know each other and get progressively interested in each other and leave together and start some rumors.”

At Stanford, Matson became known for giving her students freedom but knowing when to rein them in, for urging them to collaborate with community decision makers and to choose research questions that could illuminate broader concepts of how ecosystems work. “I think she was one of the first people to start thinking across landscapes,” says Karen Carney, ’04. “She realized that in order to make a difference you have to talk to all the people involved, and understand the system as a whole, from the mountain range all the way down to the ocean, that they all interact.”

Just as Matson has been at the center of every major recent pivot in environmentalism—the growing awareness of climate change, the move toward sustainability—she also has been a force in what might be called its Al Goreification: making environmentalism practical and mainstream by getting high-level decision makers involved. During the past decade she has become a power broker herself. She chaired the National Academy of Sciences Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability, was president of the Ecological Society of America, and served on many boards of directors, including those of the World Wildlife Fund and the National Parks Conservation Association.

This gave her a national bully pulpit. Katherine McCarter, executive director of the Ecological Society of America, recalls that one of Matson’s brainstorms was to form “rapid response teams” of scientists who would be available in a nanosecond to testify at hearings, speak to the media or analyze proposed legislation, the better to shape public opinion on environmental issues. Another was to launch a journal, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, designed to get non-ecologists talking about eco-issues. Matson’s warm, energetic nature, McCarter says, enhances her relationships with the kinds of movers and shakers who can solve environmental problems. “She is just such an extraordinary ambassador for ecology and has achieved so much in her life and does it with so much grace,” McCarter says. “How could she help but be a wonderful symbol for any science?”

Matson’s appointment as dean of Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences in 2002 was telling. The selection of a sustainability advocate to head a school that had essentially evolved from the department of geology and mining was a sign of changing times. (When the school’s petroleum engineering department reinvented itself last year as the department of energy resources engineering, that was another.) Yet with her experience leading interdisciplinary collaboration, Matson is confident as she brings everyone to the table. “We can talk about energy and environment in the same breath,” Matson says. “All of us recognize that we need to be pragmatic.”

“The School of Earth Sciences is undergoing a transformation as the nature of the challenges that we face changes,” says Barton H. “Buzz” Thompson, ’73, MBA ’75, JD ’76, a law professor who co-directs Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “Some people might be scared of periods of transition and transformation, but I think Pam thrives on that, because it’s exactly during those periods that you have a real opportunity to rethink what you’re doing and to create new programs and collaborations that can better address the challenges we now face.”

The move from professor to administrator has been a big change for Matson—there’s less time for her own projects, which, she’ll admit a bit wistfully, she misses. But she believes her new role serves a bigger purpose. “I’ve gone from government scientist to faculty member and researcher to dean. These transitions have all been exciting and challenging, and I’ve done them because I saw that I could be helpful in doing them.” Above all, she says, “There is probably nothing more fun and fulfilling to me than being part of interdisciplinary teams who carry out research that contributes to fundamental knowledge and at the same time helps develop more sustainable solutions to challenges faced by land owners and other decision makers.”

Nowadays, that means leading the Initiative on the Environment and Sustainability, part of the $4.3 billion Stanford Challenge. Matson hopes to use the initiative to harness the interdisciplinary power of the University, turning fundamental research into policy recommendations and real-world solutions. Take, for example, the initiative-funded research headed by Gretchen Daily, director of Stanford’s tropical research program at the Center for Conservation Biology. Daily’s research is designed to make conservation not simply a moral imperative, but actually profitable.

Daily is working with cattle ranchers in Hawaii on a project that encourages them to reforest grazing land with koa, a native tree. Restoring this ground cover not only will bolster biodiversity and improve water quality and flood control, but also will eventually allow ranchers to profit from harvesting timber. Daily’s collaborators include the Hawaii Cattleman’s Council, the state legislature, a school system and the Nature Conservancy—just the sort of mix Matson has always envisioned. (Other investigators on the project include Matson, Vitousek, Naylor and doctoral candidate Joshua Goldstein, ’07, author of an article about the work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

Daily, who has co-taught with Matson, says that she’s an inspiration for partnerships like this. “From the beginning she has involved people from all sorts of areas of expertise both within academia and out in the real world, trying to get everybody on the same side of a problem,” Daily says. “If you want people to change—and you need people to change—you have to first of all open up opportunities and alternatives to what people are doing today, and second, you’ve got to create incentives to make the switch.”

Other initiative-based projects will try to bring auto and energy industry execs together with academics and activists to discuss the future of biofuels, or to partner nonprofit agencies and aquaculture industry leaders to find sustainable ways to cultivate the ocean for food. And if these kinds of unlikely alliances sound familiar, they should: Matson has found the ultimate platform from which to share her lifelong love of crossover collaboration, as well as a message of hope. “As we go into this century, we are faced with enormous challenges in terms of how we’re going to meet the needs of people. We are moving in the right direction for sure, but we need to move a lot faster.”


KARA PLATONI is a staff writer for the East Bay Express.

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