U.Va.'s Deborah Lawrence Named a Fellow in Jefferson Science, Fulbright and Guggenheim Programs

March 31, 2009 — Deborah Lawrence, associate professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, has been named a Jefferson Science Fellow by the U.S. Department of State, pending diplomatic security clearance approval.

Named after Thomas Jefferson, the first secretary of state and founder of the University, the Jefferson Science Fellowship program each year brings six to eight tenured professors of science and engineering to the State Department for one year to advise officials on science issues relating to current and emerging policy.

Fellows remain on call as science advisers to the State Department for five more years. 

Lawrence will focus on climate change issues during her fellowship. She was chosen from a national field of hundreds of applicants and is the first Jefferson Science Fellow from U.Va. in the seven-year history of the program. She will begin her Jefferson Science Fellowship in Washington in August.

Lawrence's research is focused in Mexico, Costa Rica and Indonesia, specializing in understanding the consequences of land-use change on tropical ecosystems. Researchers in her group study how vegetation and soils respond to changing uses by humans, focusing on the interplay between vegetation dynamics and nutrient dynamics in secondary (re-growth) tropical forests.

Lawrence this year also was named a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fulbright Scholar. She earned these two awards to continue work on the effects of "slash and burn" agriculture and land-use transitions in the tropics.

"These awards will give me a chance to study land-use transitions in the tropical forests of mainland Southeast Asia, a very different socio-economic and political environment from that of Indonesia and Mexico, where I have been working," Lawrence said.

"I will explore why the ecological effects of land use vary across the tropics by expanding my toolkit to include approaches from the social sciences. Climate and soils can only explain so much," she added. "Beyond that, the trajectory toward sustainability or decline depends on the human dimension — from the household to the government to the global economy."

Lawrence explores the effects of land use over lengthy periods of time – years to decades – investigating disturbances by type, intensity and the time since the last disturbance to get a big-picture view of the affects of human activities on ecosystems. She focuses on shifting cultivation of many crops, from maize, rice or pasture, to cash crops such as chile, rubber or fruits. A greater understanding of the long-term effects of land use can better inform programs for sustainable management, especially important in tropical forests.

"Tropical forests hold vast stores of the earth's biodiversity; they also play a major role in regulating the global carbon cycle and thus, global climate," Lawrence said. "Understanding how these forests are changing, the drivers of those changes, and constraints on their ability to sequester carbon in the future is critical to formulating sound policies to maintain the functioning of our earth system.

"In the coming years, our State Department will take a lead in this effort. The fate of tropical forests affects the livelihood and well-being of people in tropical nations, but it also affects the rest of us. We are entering a new era of global cooperation, and international agreements, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Guggenheim Fellowships are awarded to those who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for scholarship or creativity. The current group of 190 awardees was selected from 2,600 applicants.

The Fulbright U.S. Scholar program, sponsored by the Department of State, each year sends 800 academics and professionals overseas for educational and cultural exchange. Lawrence will serve her fellowship in Thailand in the summer of 2009 and the fall of 2010.

"Deb [Lawrence] has been a strong contributor to the Department of Environmental Sciences, and this impressive array of awards shows how strong her support is throughout the scientific community," said Jay Zieman, chairman of that department.

— By Fariss Samarrai