U.Va. Profiles: Environmental Sciences Professor James Galloway

September 01, 2008

Seasoned college professors, like experienced actors, know how to use a good prop. When James Galloway wants to illustrate to non-science majors the environmental trade-offs that occur during industrial food production, he brings along Fred the Chicken. The life-sized stuffed fowl normally resides on a bookshelf in Galloway’s Clark Hall office.

Under the right conditions, a chicken like Fred can live 15 years, Galloway said. Then he shows his students a chicken from the supermarket. "This chicken lived for 42 days. The good news is, it’s a tremendous source of protein for people, and it’s cheap. The bad news is, there is a tremendous environmental cost. To change this, people have to revise how they eat and how they use energy."

For Galloway, figuring out the cycle of events underlying natural processes makes life interesting. As a professor of environmental sciences, he’s a vibrant teacher. As a big-picture person, he understands that solving global environmental problems requires scientists working with engineers, policymakers and politicians.

Nitrogen, nitrogen everywhere

Galloway is easygoing and given to wearing crewneck sweaters and faded jeans. But behind that affability lie a focused intellect and probing mind. For much of his career, he’s focused on one big thing: the science of nitrogen on a global scale. When he boiled it down to one elemental question — what happens when nitrogen reacts in the environment? — Galloway came up with an answer: the nitrogen cascade.

Like many good ideas, it’s a beguilingly simple explanation of a devilishly complex process. Nitrogen in the environment is abundant in the atmosphere and harmless in its inert form — N2. It is also useless as a nutrient, which is unfortunate, as all biological species must have it for growth and development. However, very few species have the ability to turn nitrogen into a reactive form (ammonia or a nitrate, for example) that can be used by organisms.

"We’re surrounded by all this nitrogen, but we can’t use it because it’s not in a form that we can use," Galloway explained. "Humans have now become better than nature at creating what we call 'reactive' nitrogen." He explains that through the combustion of fossil fuels, reactive nitrogen is created as a waste product, much like carbon dioxide. A similar result comes from the production of nitrogen fertilizer, which mixes hydrogen and nitrogen to create ammonia.

In an authoritative paper published in the journal BioScience in 2003, Galloway and his colleagues developed the concept of a "nitrogen cascade" to describe the cumulative impact of human-generated reactive nitrogen in the environment. Essentially, reactive nitrogen compounds don’t just disappear. Some can start out as smog-forming compounds, then are deposited in forest soils and groundwater as nitric acid, and move on to the coast, where they create algae blooms and dead zones. Then it’s back up into the atmosphere in the form of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.

Describing this biogeochemical cascade, Galloway said, "I didn’t lie there in bed one night and have a light bulb go off. This is the result of working with lots of people — ecologists, hydrologists, atmospheric scientists."

Galloway’s peers have lauded his willingness to follow his instincts. In April, he accepted the 2008 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement — often referred to as the "Nobel Prize of environmental science" — at the University of Southern California. Past winners include primate researcher Jane Goodall, ecologist Edward O. Wilson and conservation biologist Jared Diamond, author of the bestseller, "Guns, Germs and Steel."

Down River

As part of his nitrogen research, Galloway has for more than 30 years been a leader in studying the effects of acid rain on native brook trout in Virginia and the southern Appalachians. The Shenandoah Watershed Study is the longest-running watershed research and monitoring program in the National Park System. By amassing a continuous stream of data on the effects of nitrogen and sulfur in forested soil and water, he and his team have helped to shape public policy relative to acid rain.

Galloway became interested in the newly identified phenomenon of acid rain as a postdoctoral associate in ecology and systematics at Cornell University in the mid-1970s. From 1974 to 1976, he worked with Gene Likens, a pioneer in the study of acid rain and a previous Tyler laureate. He also lists as mentors Jim Arnold, his doctoral advisor at the University of California-San Diego (where Galloway had received his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1972), and Ellis Cowling at North Carolina State University. "All three of these guys gave me tremendous opportunities and freedom to explore and do things that I thought might be interesting," Galloway recalled.

Up through the Ranks

Galloway was born in Annapolis, Md. on Oct. 26, 1944. After completing graduate school, he worked in a craft cooperative in Lexington, Va. "In 1973, we sold pottery at the craft fair at the University of Virginia and the Boar’s Head Christmas fair," he said. "At the Boars Head, we were all dressed up in medieval costume." In 1976, he joined U.Va.'s then-brand-new environmental sciences department and has never looked back.

"Jim grew up academically here," said David Smith, a professor of environmental sciences at U.Va. and current co-chairman of the department. "He’s moved up through the ranks." Galloway served as department chair from 1996 to 2001.

"Jim is very committed to teaching," Smith continued. "He enjoys dressing up sometimes for his classes. I’ve seen him come in with a corny little hat on his head and in a tuxedo to give a presentation. Students respond well to that."

Melissa Kenney (Col ’02) was already scientifically inclined when she decided to go to U.Va. because of its environmental sciences department. She first met with Galloway when she served as the president of the Environmental Sciences Organization.

Kenney is now doing postdoctoral work at Johns Hopkins’ National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics. "Jim’s nitrogen class was one of the most useful classes I took at U.Va.," she said. "Who knew I would continue to do work that involves nitrogen in my graduate and post-doc career?"

Fixed Roots

As Galloway’s former students have thrived, so has he. "Research is rewarding because you get to work with really smart people and think about new things and create something new," he said. "In teaching, you get to take that information and learn how to get it across to people, who will put that with all their other information and then devise a life path for themselves."

And as concern over global warming grows, Galloway has felt compelled to confront the problems posed by disruptions in the global nitrogen cycle. The founding chairman of the International Nitrogen Initiative, a clearinghouse of scientists, economists, engineers and policymakers, he is looking for ways to implement solutions.

While becoming more active internationally, he’s managed to remain rooted as a member of the community. He just celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary with his wife, Nancy, a local artist. They raised their children, Joshua and Anna, in Charlottesville. He’s active at St. Paul’s Memorial Church. He's also a gardener — peas, arugula and spinach in the spring — and he’s serious enough about it to keep the groundhogs at bay with electric fencing. Kenney laughed when she recalled Galloway’s "vendetta against the groundhogs."

Rampaging rodents aside, Galloway likes to keep the creative process alive in himself and others. "You have to follow your passion," he said. “I’ve accomplished some things and took options as they came along, which I try to instill in the students. Really branch out. Do lots of different things while you’re here."

-- By William Cocke