University of Vermont

Gillian Galford Joins RSENR Faculty and Gund Institute

Gillian Galford, new research assistant professor in RSENR's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics
Gillian Galford, new research assistant professor in RSENR's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics

Research Assistant Professor Gillian Galford joined the Rubenstein School’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics this past fall.  Gillian is an earth systems scientist who monitors large-scale land cover and land use change, especially in tropical agroecosystems, and its impacts on ecosystem services, particularly carbon and nitrogen stocks and their contribution to greenhouse gases and climate change.

“Increasing human population coupled with rising standards of living have and will continue to increase demands for food, fiber, and fuel in ways that alter ecosystem goods and services,” explains Gillian. “My interests in ecosystem services center on impacts on biogeochemical cycles, particularly the emissions of greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Conversions of natural ecosystems and low-intensity managed lands, such as pastures, to high intensity use, such as heavily-mechanized croplands, releases carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Intensive cropland management, such as fertilizer use, determines long-term patterns of soil nutrient stocks and greenhouse gas pathways.”

Gillian uses remote sensing and computer modeling to estimate historical and future greenhouse gas emissions. She has investigated carbon and nitrogen dynamics in a range of settings from large-scale soybean farms of Mato Grosso, Brazil to small-holder agricultural systems of Malawi and East Africa undergoing the 21st century African Green Revolution. Her work informs sustainable development and governmental policy as well as natural resource managers and farmers.

“By combining remote sensing, GIS, biogeochemical measurements in the field, and ecosystem modeling, we can better understand the spatial distribution of change on the landscape due to human activities, impacts on global carbon and nitrogen cycles, and implications for agricultural and environmental sustainability, biodiversity, and climate change,” sums up Gillian.

Gillian has had a life-long passion for and commitment to all things geological or ecological. As a high school student in Portland, Oregon, she taught earth sciences at a residential outdoor learning program for sixth graders and early on was recruited by Dr. Raymond Arvidson at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.  She joined his Earth and Planetary Remote Sensing Laboratory as a first year student. There, she worked on behind-the-scenes Earth analogs to Mars for the first Rover missions, as well as mapping and analyses of vegetation responses to flooding in Missouri and lava flows in Hawaii.

“These early experiences reinforced to me the need to understand natural systems and the impacts that human uses have had on those systems,” notes Gillian.  “I realized I can approach environmental sustainability by exploring earth systems science while incorporating study of the human component.”

She conducted her doctoral research on biogeochemistry of land-use change as part of Dr. John Mustard’s Planetary Geosciences Group at Brown University and Dr. Jerry Melillo’s Ecosystem Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Gillian studied the biogeochemical consequences of land cover and land use change in the Brazilian Amazon’s agricultural frontier.  In the last decade, the southwestern Brazilian Amazon has begun rapid transformation from natural vegetation and pastures to mechanized agriculture with significant impacts on regional biogeochemistry. Gillian helped to create new methods for remote sensing of cropland and estimation of impacts of agricultural expansion and intensification on Brazil’s greenhouse gas budget.

A post-doctoral appointment took her to the Earth Institute at Columbia University.  With a new NASA grant, Gillian continues to collaborate with the Institute to study the socioeconomic and environmental outcomes of the African Green Revolution 2.0 with economist Hope Michelson. Gillian conducts remote sensing and ecosystem modeling of farmland in Malawi of sub-Saharan Africa to determine on what soil types and in what rain patterns crops perform best to target suitable sites for cropland. Most recently, Gillian completed a post-doc at the Woods Hole Research Center where she modeled carbon emissions for agricultural policy scenarios in the Congo of central Africa and continued working on land use change in Brazil.

At UVM, Gillian continues to collaborate on research in Africa and Brazil.  She is currently focused on the Cerrado of Brazil, a vast wooded savanna covering more than 20% of the country that is now the largest frontier of agricultural development and, unlike the Amazon rainforest, is unprotected. Here, farmers are converting from all soybean production to soybean half the year and corn the other half.  Corn requires fertilization unlike soybean which fixes its own nitrogen. Gillian is determining the fate of excess nitrogen from fertilizer which could be ending up in surface waters or the atmosphere.

In choosing to come to UVM, Gillian states, “I saw UVM and the Gund Institute as strong in the environmental sciences.  I’m excited to collaborate with faculty and inspired students in the Rubenstein School and across campus and dig into the environmental side of things.”  She intends to develop new research and courses around the agroecosystems of Vermont.

Gillian will teach NR/FOR 228 Ecosystems Ecology in the spring and an atelier course in the Gund’s graduate-level certificate program next year. The atelier will involve a Vermont climate assessment in collaboration with Chris Callahan, UVM Extension assistant professor, and Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, UVM associate professor in Geography.  Gillian plans to engage her students in identifying areas of Vermont agriculture vulnerable to climate change, such as apple growing, and work with growers who have 40-100 years of weather, phenology, and production records.

She is also teaming up with Gund Professor Taylor Ricketts and the Vermont Land Trust to calculate values for future scenarios of land conservation in the state and estimate values of ecosystem services from these lands.

Gillian lives in Burlington and enjoys hiking, skiing, travelling, and playing with her dog, Kailua.