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Boston University Arts & Sciences
CAS News April 22, 2014
Biology Alum Teams with Former Mentor Finzi on Pathbreaking Climate Change Research
By Dana Mikaelian

Colin Averill has been blazing trails in climate research since his time at BU. As a CAS Biology student, he researched nitrogen composition in soil through BU’s UROP initiative. Now earning a PhD through UT Austin’s Ecology Evolution and Behavior program, Averill is conducting research that could revolutionize our understanding of climate change, and maybe even help us fight it.

The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) pairs BU undergrads with faculty members, giving students an early taste of research in a field that interests them. Averill’s faculty mentor was biology professor Dr. Adrien Finzi, and they worked together for two summers. One summer was spent hiking on the Edmunds Path—which leads to the summit of Mt. Eisenhower in New Hampshire’s White Mountains—in an attempt to better understand how plants access soil resources to support their growth from low elevations to high elevations. Dr. Finzi and Averill focused on one soil resource in particular: nitrogen, which is crucial to agricultural growth.

Their study asked two questions: Are different forms of nitrogen available along the elevation gradient? And, if so, do the plants preferentially utilize these different forms of nitrogen? Not only did they discover different forms of nitrogen do exist, but their findings also showed that climate, through its effects on the decomposition process, influenced the amount and form of nitrogen taken up by vegetation. Averill published his results in the peer-review scientific journal Ecology, and in that same year his paper was awarded the Outstanding Student Research in Ecology Award by the student section of the Ecological Society of America.

To continue their research on the impact of fungi on climate change, Dr. Finzi also oversaw Averill in a follow-up study on Mt. Eisenhower, where they were able to relate the difference in nitrogen uptake to the types of symbiotic fungi growing on plant roots. This study was published in a second peer-reviewed scientific journal, Soil Biology and Biochemistry, and in combination with their original study formed the foundation for their most recent work, published in the prestigious journal Nature last January. Their latest finding? The type of symbiotic fungi growing on plant roots profoundly affects the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide they are able to store, suggesting that “plant-decomposer competition for nutrients exerts a fundamental control over the terrestrial carbon cycle.”

As their piece in Nature states, “understanding the mechanisms controlling the accumulation and stability of soil carbon is critical to predicting Earth’s future climate.” In Averill’s young career, he may have already found the key that keeps much of earth’s carbon dioxide locked away, thanks to the research he conducted while enrolled in CAS and the mentorship of Dr. Finzi.

“My main objective in mentoring Colin was aiding him in developing his ideas,” says Finzi. “His work on Mt. Eisenhower was certainly an intellectual descendent of projects ongoing in the lab, but really, that was just the beginning—Colin took that idea and substantially expanded upon it.” Now in his fourth year of graduate school at UT Austin, Averill has already published five peer-reviewed scientific papers, and was awarded three years of PhD support through an extremely prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

Finzi adds, “I can’t think of any other PhD student I have known or mentored in my 15-year plus career who has had this much success.”

And, it seems, he’s just getting started.

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