Ecology postdoc flips research questions and career paths on their heads

"Laura Podzikowski"

Laura Podzikowski | Postdoctoral Researcher | Kansas Biological Survey & Center for Ecological Research

Laura Podzikowski is no stranger to looking at things differently. 

Originally an anticipated English major at a liberal arts college in Michigan, she came to science through an environmental studies class for non-majors. The coursework touched on climate change, which piqued Podzikowski’s interest. 

“We read this article called ‘The Climate of Man.’ It’s a three-part article that was released in The New Yorker in 2005, and it outlined the argument for why humans might be causing climate change,” she said. “I just remember reading it and just feeling so compelled by that argument and thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be the biggest thing facing our generation, and I have to know more about it.’”

Podzikowski earned a master’s degree in natural resources and the environment from the University of Michigan before coming to KU to complete a doctorate in ecology & evolutionary biology. She’s currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Billings Lab at the Kansas Biological Survey & Center for Ecological Research.

Among the many proposals to reduce humanity’s impact on the environment is carbon capture, the process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Plants naturally take in CO2 during their metabolic process of photosynthesis, leading scientists and policymakers alike to think of plants as a natural mechanism for sinking carbon molecules into soil.

Podzikowski studies the other side of this equation — the soil itself.

“People typically look at how planting a bunch of different plants can increase the amount of soil carbon because it just puts a bunch of biomass there, and eventually that filters down,” Podzikowski said. “But alternatively, putting a bunch of plants in soil can also stimulate a lot of activity. The soils actually breathe; they respire.”

“I wanted to look at the role that soil respiration was playing in the development of soil carbon, and essentially kind of taking that model, flipping it, and looking at it through a different lens.”

This work builds on Podzikowski’s dissertation research, which found that the diversity of plants can affect how much soil is respiring. Her postdoctoral fellowship is funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food & Agriculture grant. Many aspiring professors complete their postdoctoral positions at different institutions from the ones that awarded their graduate degrees. But Podzikowski found that the intellectual community at KU and the work already ongoing at the KU Field Station best supported her research.

“In 2018, we built these rainfall exclusion shelters and put plots with a varied amount of plants there. These plots are a great place for me to ask some of those questions,” she said.

“And for me, one of the really fun things about working with all these different people at KU is that you can take the same question and look at it through different lenses and see if you put them together, can you draw different inferences? Or learn more?”

Podzikowski’s work will continue inspiring students of all levels to consider science. She assisted with the 2023 Ecosystems of Kansas Summer Institute, which took 16 middle school teachers to the KU Field Station to explore resources and gain new ideas to take into their classrooms.

“There's no one path in this profession, which I think is something that people don’t always understand.” she said. “I think people have this idea that you go straight from your undergrad all the way through your Ph.D. and straight into a faculty position. I was definitely not that person. I took a very nonlinear path.”