Biogeochemistry Professor and J-school Collaborate through NSF Grant

When University of Montana biogeochemistry Professor Cory Cleveland begins a new project in Panama this summer, a young journalist will be coming along for the ride.

Cleveland will build on his long-held conviction that “a fundamental piece of good science is to communicate it effectively,” when he embeds a graduate student from UM’s Master’s program in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism with his research team to document their fieldwork at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

A lift-out quote reading “It’s an innovative model of collaboration between journalism and the sciences that we hope will serve as a model for other research efforts at the University of Montana.” Scientists often struggle to convey the meaning of their work to the general public. Cleveland says the approach of bringing in a journalist from the beginning helped his proposal stand out and get funding from the National Science Foundation in a highly competitive application process. It will allow him to focus on his research while at the same time helping to create better communication. “I’m never going to do as well at that as someone who’s an expert and a professional journalist,” he said.

The collaboration benefits both sides. For the School of Journalism, the opportunity to document all phases of the research will allow a student to produce compelling stories about a rigorous scientific experiment that has large potential impacts on humanity, said Associate Professor Henriette Lowisch, the UM J-School’s graduate program director, who collaborated with Cleveland on his proposal.

“This will be a huge challenge for an emerging journalist, who will be able to practice all they’ve learned about making complex research accessible to the public,” Lowisch said. “It’s an innovative model of collaboration between journalism and the sciences that we hope will serve as a model for other research efforts at the University of Montana.” Together, Lowisch and Cleveland will select a journalism graduate student to accompany the research team.

In Panama, Cleveland will be testing whether tropical plants are able to get more nutrients from the soil than scientists have previously thought. Tropical forests are among the most productive on Earth, and remove significant amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. The plants use CO2 as food to grow, but their growth is ultimately limited by the presence of other nutrients, such as phosphorous, which is scarce in tropical soils. Cleveland’s NSF grant will allow him to study whether tropical plant species have evolved novel ways around this limitation.

The research not only questions conventional wisdom about what plants are capable of, it also carries implications for a world coming to terms with climate change. If Cleveland is right and tropical forests are able to match growing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere with phosphorous and other nutrients in the soil, they’ll act as better carbon sinks, which could help mitigate the effects of burning fossil fuels.

It’s a good story for an up-and-coming journalist, but how to cover it will be a choice the graduate student will make on the ground in Panama. The result will go beyond the traditional press release that tries to explain scientific research to the public, and instead use story, the craft of journalism, to showcase science.

Both Lowisch and Cleveland said that the project leaves the journalism student room to tell the story as he or she best sees fit.

We’re just going to say here’s an opportunity, come do something,” Cleveland says. “Hopefully that benefits them and they can tell something interesting about what we’re doing, or maybe not. There’s no agenda.”

Lowisch said that part of the reason she is excited about doing this collaboration with Cleveland is exactly that understanding. “Both journalism and science are disciplines of verification, and to be able to do that you need to be independent and Cory Cleveland has understood that.”

Adapted from UM news release by Andrew Graham
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