Studying the links between chemistry and ecosystems

Beth Holland, Biogeochemist

Beth Holland
Elisabeth "Beth" Holland


Beth Holland has taken on the role of professor at the University of the South Pacific's Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (February 2012)

“I’m curious,” is Beth Holland’s answer to why she decided to go into science. “I’ve always wanted to know how things work.”

A biogeochemist, Elisabeth "Beth" Holland satisfies her curiosity at NCAR, where she studies the link between the chemistry of the atmosphere and ecosystems on Earth. In particular, she focuses on how air pollution, climate change, and ecosystems interact.

“I love the work because there is always something new to learn,” Beth says. Her research has taken her from places like Chamela, Mexico, where she measured dew formation and trace gas release from soils in a dry tropical forest, to south Texas where she looked at the release of nitric oxide from soils after rainfall or fertilization with nitrogen. 

Beth knew she wanted to go into science as a child. “There really wasn’t any defining moment when I decided,” she says. She recalls that after winning a spelling bee in fifth grade, she told reporters from the local newspaper she planned to be either a geologist or vice president of the United States.

She worked as a naturalist in college, graduating from Colorado State University with a degree in zoology and Spanish. With the encouragement of a number of mentors there, she stayed at CSU to earn a master’s degree in soil science and doctoral degree in ecology and environmental sciences. After graduate school, she was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University before joining NCAR’s Atmospheric Chemistry Division.

A circular diagram

Beth leads NCAR’s Biogeosciences Program. Its goal is to incorporate the biological sciences into geophysics and atmospheric research to advance our understanding of complex, interconnected processes. Biological processes and human actions affect carbon, gas, water, and energy cycles; in turn, physical processes in the atmosphere and ocean affect biological, hydrological, and human land-use systems. For example, fossil fuel combustion releases nitrogen into the atmosphere, where rain carries it back to the soil.  Excess nitrogen in turn alters soil chemistry and changes the types of species found in an ecosystem. It also contributes to eutrophication, a form of water pollution in which an overload of nutrients causes excessive algae blooms that deplete oxygen and kill fish.

Beth says that one of the most important things a scientist can do is communicate the results of his or her work. “I really believe in the science I’m doing and its ability to serve society,” she says. “I want to make a difference.”

Front cover of a Climate Change report

As part of her work, she participates in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments, serving as a lead author for the 2001 and 2007 IPCC assessment reports. The World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme established the IPCC in the late 1980s to assess scientific, technical, and socioeconomic information relevant to the understanding of climate change.

“Working on the reports has been a really good experience in trying to summarize science in a way useful to policy makers,” Beth says. “Working with scientists from other countries and backgrounds also teaches you a lot about the tremendous privilege it is to do science.”

In addition to her research at NCAR, Beth also spent two years as a visiting scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany. She is on the graduate faculties of CSU and the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is a fellow of CSU’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory and was formerly a fellow of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).

Beth says that if there’s anything she’s learned over the years in science, it’s that determination pays. “Sometimes you just have to be really persistent and not give up,” she says. “You have to keep trying to make that breakthrough.”

by Nicole Gordon
May 2004, updated October 2010

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