Newswise — While studying abroad in Nicaragua as an undergraduate student 10 years ago, Brooke Eastman observed the country’s long history of land grabbing and clashes between industries, immigrants and indigenous communities. 

While there have been recent efforts to restore the land, the conflicts continue. She witnessed how climate change impacts poor communities disproportionately and how both humans and the environment are simultaneously exploited. That motivated her to dedicate her career to uncovering climate change solutions. 

Now as a biology Ph.D. student at West Virginia University, Eastman studies how acid rain impacts forest health. She is committed to highlighting forests’ role in mitigating climate change.

“I have always felt connected with nature and felt pained by humans' misuse of the planet. I am also the type of person who asks a lot of questions, and I have an appetite for understanding how things work,” Eastman said. “I wanted to learn more about the science of how carbon cycles through forests and the real potential that forests offer us in terms of cleaning up after our mess. I knew that forests do take up carbon from the atmosphere, but they also release a lot of carbon back to the atmosphere, so I wanted to study what factors make forests better at storing carbon.”

Eastman will further this work as one of 23 students selected nationally for the Ecological Society of America’s Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award

“This is an opportunity to gain formal training and experience in the science policy field,” Eastman said. “I have been involved in the past with community organizing around environmental policy issues, but I have less experience as a trained scientist speaking with authority to our lawmakers about environmental policy.”

Through this virtual experience, the students will use their expertise as scientists to discuss the payoffs of federal investments in ecological and biological research while training to become science communicators influencing federal policy. They will attend a virtual panel discussion on careers in science policy and workshops on the federal budget and science communication with Congress.

“These trainings and experiences will teach me how to communicate in a public policy context and provide insight into the process and culture of engaging federal lawmakers. They are meant to prepare us for Capitol Hill meetings with congresspeople or their staff,” Eastman said. “West Virginia, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention lately in terms of federal legislation and how we can shift our energy economy without leaving behind the people who played a huge role in building this nation up through natural resource extraction in the past.” 

In her research, Eastman examines carbon cycles in ecosystems and how forests can be useful climate change mitigation tools through their ability to capture and store large amounts of carbon. 

“We are in the throes of a climate crisis, and it is imperative that we understand how our actions and decisions will exacerbate or mitigate the negative effects of climate change,” she said. “It can be overwhelming to think about all of the global changes that threaten our well-being and the well-being of many other organisms. I want to be a part of the solution because I know that we have the capacity to turn this into an opportunity to build a better future. That eventually led me to where I am, studying how acid rain impacts forest carbon cycling and how the carbon and nitrogen cycles interact in complex ways.”

Her latest research on the forest carbon cycle was recently published in New Phytologist, a top ecology journal. 

In this paper, Eastman and colleagues, including adviser William Peterjohn, summarized 30 years of data collected from two small, forested areas. The broad scale and long duration of this experiment allowed them to determine that long-term acid rain simulations increased carbon storage in the vegetation and the soil, though some of the changes they observed may have uncertain effects on forest health in the future.

“One of the largest sources of uncertainty in predictions of the global carbon cycle and, as a result, climate change, is how the soil carbon stock will respond to future environmental changes,” Eastman said. “Because soils contain more carbon than all vegetation and the atmosphere combined, a small change in the soil carbon stock can have a major impact on the atmosphere and climate.”

This study was one of few comprehensive ecosystem-wide studies that will inform predictions for how deciduous forests like those in West Virginia will respond to various global changes. 

“Forests currently absorb a fair amount of the carbon dioxide released from fossil fuel emissions, but carbon dioxide is still accumulating in the atmosphere. As the atmospheric carbon dioxide continue to increase, forests will need access to more nitrogen in order to continue providing us this service of carbon sequestration,” Eastman said. “This study provides a framework for predicting future forest functioning and how forests may adapt to a changing environment.”

Eastman also volunteers with WVU’s science and technology policy initiative, Bridge

“This opportunity is providing me with training on policy analysis, program evaluation and stakeholder engagement. I spent a lot of time before graduate school working in the nonprofit realm, from mobilizing people around renewable energy to coordinating more than 1,000 volunteers for meal delivery to seniors,” she said. “I would love to combine my worlds of research and community engagement in a career where I can work to build solutions to the climate crisis while addressing environmental injustices and working in an interdisciplinary team.”

After graduating from WVU later this year, Eastman seeks a career that bridges climate change and ecology research with practical solutions.

“I hope to address the effects of the climate crisis on the natural world and marginalized communities. My research is providing me with the foundational knowledge of how global change impacts ecosystems, especially forests. I have also learned to work independently, synthesize complex information into a more accessible form and analyze and present scientific results,” she said. “My dream job may come in many forms – higher education, government research or science policy. I am optimistic that such opportunities will continue to arise as interdisciplinary teams are essential to addressing the climate crisis.”

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