Fresh Faculty: Rebecca Hewitt

Rebecca “Becky” Hewitt is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies who researches the impacts of climate change on arctic ecosystems, focusing on forests and belowground fungi. Hewitt received a B.A. from Middlebury College in 2005 and a Ph.D. from University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2014.

Fresh Faculty: Rebecca Hewitt
Hewitt’s research has been informed by her travels and the notion of coproduced knowledge. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

Sonia Chajet Wides: What do you teach here?

Becky Hewitt: I teach Introduction to Environmental Science [with lab]. And then I teach Ecosystem Ecology. I also teach Introduction to Environmental Studies, and a climate change science course.

SCW: And what do you research?

BH: I research the impacts of climate change in arctic ecosystems, both boreal forest and tundra. I used to work in the Russian Far East, but now my research is in Alaska. One of the most recent projects is looking at how forest treelines may expand into tundra [where there are usually not trees] …  that is important because boreal forest trees represent a really dark land cover type, so as they migrate, they reduce albedo [a surface’s light reflectance], which can then cause regional warming and impact global climate. They also represent a large stock of carbon. So understanding what regulates that ecotone [boundary] between boreal forest and tundra, in light of climate change, has been an active area of research for a really long time, but one we still don’t fully understand. I’ve been doing that work in the Brooks Range in Alaska, the northernmost mountain range in Alaska, [but] I’ve studied treelines all across the state of Alaska.

I’ve also been really focused on how wildfire activity has changed with climate warming … we’ve seen more intense, larger, more frequent wildfires in the boreal forest. And so one thing that I’m really interested in is, when a forest has burned, how does it recover? And is it the same suite of tree species that establish after a wildfire?

For both of those projects, I’m focused on fungi that are in soil, called mycorrhizal fungi, and what role they have in the ability of trees to perform their basic ecological functions, like take up nitrogen, take up water, and just exist as healthy beings. After wildfire, there can be a real shift in the mycorrhizae that are present … Interestingly, … those fungi themselves represent a substantial amount of carbon and nitrogen just in the soil volume. And so they’re really interesting in their own right, from a biogeochemical perspective.

SCW: Like you’re describing, you’re excited about belowground systems and soil. What do you feel like is something that people don’t know or consider about soil?

BH: I think that the thing that really has driven all of my research, probably since I was working on my dissertation, is that … I find it really exciting that there’s this world beneath our feet that is very important … ecologically … but we’re just starting to get a grasp of how it operates.

Because it’s hard to characterize the structure and function of what’s belowground, and it takes a lot of really advanced tools from molecular biology or geochemistry, … we’re just starting to put together … our ideas around what a large store of carbon and nitrogen there could be in plant root biomass and their associated mycorrhizal fungi [that] needs to be factored into things like regional or global models as we’re thinking about scenarios of climate change.

SCW: How did you end up in this area of research, specifically?

BH: I was a student of environmental studies and biology as an undergraduate. And then I got a few really pivotal research positions as an undergraduate, doing really different things. The first one was in pollination biology … [then I looked] at aquatic invertebrate communities on my study abroad program in Botswana, working with Conservation International … And I always love being in the mountains and in Alpine ecosystems, which was the closest thing I could get to something remotely like the Arctic in the lower 48. When I was looking for Ph.D. programs, I was really focused on places that were studying other very high altitude or latitude ecosystems, because … those are changing so rapidly with climate warming, and that’s what I wanted to study. I ended up going up to Alaska.

Then, one of the first research trips that I took in the field with scientists at University of Alaska Fairbanks, a mycorrhizal specialist was on [the trip] … and I guess I had been very inspired by some mycorrhizal research that had been published in the timeframe when I was applying to graduate school. I thought it was super cool to look at mutualisms belowground because I had been studying pollination biology, so mutualisms with flowers and whatnot.

The place where I was studying pollination biology, I was studying a clonal plant. So we ended up spending a few afternoons digging up these clones … And we just saw these massive networks of fireweed that spanned these really large areas …  And it was so cool to me, to see this all connected belowground. You just had no idea, it could be meters and meters away, and it was the same individual when you trace the rhizome back.

I think that was the beginning of it, and then I read a few papers about mycorrhizal ecology, and what I thought was so cool was, from the plant ecology perspective, you think of competition and more antagonistic interactions. But if we start to see what’s happening belowground, it’s easier to think about things like facilitation and sharing of resources. And that just fascinated me.

SCW: In your classes, you’ve brought up shifts in thinking about environmental science and coproduction of knowledge. You’ve talked about the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and you’ve talked about these different ways of thinking about ecology — I would love to hear more about how you think about that.

BH: Well, all of the Kimmerer books are amazing. When I was in my first undergraduate research experience studying pollinators, I read “Gathering Moss,” and I think what spoke to me so much was, I loved literature as an undergraduate student, and I just felt like there was this person who was articulating wonder … and connection to the natural world, with such beautiful prose. And it just was so amazing to see that kind of writing … that was also really based in the science, and explored what was so cool about the science of biology and nitrogen cycling associated with mosses. And then, of course, “Braiding Sweetgrass” is so beautiful for so many reasons. But I think the way [Kimmerer] brings together these different stories about her own identity was particularly powerful, as a mother and a scientist. But the whole idea of coproduction is such a powerful idea that’s really being elevated in ecological science. It’s really an important focus of my own research community in Alaska right now. Because we just see the need for different ways of knowing and different perspectives to understand such a dynamic landscape in light of climate change, not only how it’s responding, but also what that means for people living on that landscape.

There’re a lot of different ways to coproduce knowledge. Research suggests the most effective way … is with an iterative conversation, where … all stakeholders [are] involved. So that could be local community members and scientists, for instance, working together. Where questions are being defined by everyone, not just by the scientists … The idea is that people are working together to define questions that are meaningful, to design the approach to how we synthesize our understanding, and then [decide] what we actually do with that knowledge. That’s, I think, the most efficacious way to practice that.

SCW: I know that you’ve lived and worked in a lot of really different places over the course of your life and your career. Can you talk about that? The things you’ve learned and experienced in those different places, doing science, while also just living your life.

BH: It’s always really interesting to see a new place … to see not only a new ecosystem, but also just see just how people are, what they’re doing, how they relate to the environment … Just like anyone who’s had the opportunity to be in a lot of places, you get to a new place, and it just sort of shifts … not only [how you] see that place, or … whatever expectations you might have, but then also helps you reframe how you’re thinking about where you’re from as well.

For the most part, my research in the last few years has been in the Arctic … primarily in the US Arctic and in Russia … I guess I just got the bug as an undergraduate and then kind of took whatever field jobs were available … When I was just out of my undergraduate, I was in Colorado at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, and then I went to Archbold Biological Station in Florida … Then I worked in a plant physiology lab at Harvard … I did a postdoc in Flagstaff, Arizona, but then still had research up in Alaska and in Russia, and … my postdoc advisor had work in South Africa, so we went to South Africa for a bit. I think there are so many good reasons to travel. But it’s really a gift, to me, at least, to learn the plants that are there, to get to sample soil. There’s something to that tactile experience of being in these places. You might choose to visit Kruger National Park [in South Africa], because it’s awesome. But to then be able to go out and study it just adds such a different layer.

SCW: And then what brought you to Amherst?

BH: I’ve always been interested in ultimately landing at a smaller school. I went to a smaller school, Middlebury College. And as I referenced a few times, I got into ecology as a student, and I really like working with students. I think it’s awesome watching them discover science, in little pieces, for the first time. And there’s also something really awesome about teaching in a smaller setting. The sorts of questions I get, it’s just fantastic. It really pushes me to understand things that I’m teaching about through a different lens or with a different depth.

And I’m originally from New England, so I didn’t know if I was going to come back to New England, but it’s been really special to return to this place.

SCW: It’s really cool that you have students in your lab who are doing theses about their own interests, but obviously, under the umbrella of the stuff that you've been researching. How has that experience been?

BH: That’s really cool. Because I haven’t been here that long, the students that have done theses already, those were really directly tied to my research. And this year, what’s really fun is that we’ve got a mix of things like research projects … that are broad collaborations with people from all over the U.S. and the world. And students are going to get plugged into a piece of that and have their own piece of that. And then, I’ve got one student who is asking similar questions, but more local to Western Massachusetts. I think that is gonna be really fun, because she’s going to bring me to her field.

Just talking about teaching and research makes me think of these collaborations that I have with this artist community in Alaska. Where similarly, we’ve gotten together as part of this collaborative group where they’re making art that is inspired or derived from their experiences in a changing Alaskan landscape. It started off as, sometimes they have questions about what they’re seeing. And I think that this kind of gets back to your question about coproduction, just carving out time to interact — whether it’s students that have different interests, or this artists’ community, or people that are different stakeholders in the landscape you’re studying, I feel like there’s always such a benefit to seeing another person’s perspective on the same one by one meter that you’re studying.

SCW: What does it look like in your lab? What kinds of things are you doing?

BH: I’ve got students who are studying impacts of wildfire on plant mycorrhizal interactions. And then I have a lot of students who are working on thinking about plant-mycorrhizal interactions in that treeline study. What that looks like is a lot of time on the microscope, which could sound tedious, but can be really fun if we’re all in the lab together. And we’re going to be doing a lot of molecular work, using DNA base tools to characterize the fungi that are associated with those root systems ... Lots of weighing of plant biomass and sorting … leaves from stems from roots, and then doing chemical analyses of those.

SCW: What do you feel like is advice that you would give to students more generally, just about being in college or next steps?

BH: Take advantage of being here. I just loved going to a liberal arts school because I took classes in so many different departments, even though I had two majors. Going back to the coproduction question you asked, it all does inform how you’re thinking about things. So I just feel like, take advantage of that … I was recently sharing with students that some of my colleagues who are scientists studied anthropology as undergraduates. And so it’s okay to come at different points to your engagement with environmental issues.

And I think there’s a lot of concern by students that if they’re in their second semester, and they don’t have a research position, then they couldn’t possibly go into a STEM field. And I just don't believe that. I think that there’s a lot of opportunities to become engaged in environmental science of whatever flavor throughout your time here. It’s okay to not have your full plan set up from the outset.

So even for people who aren’t declared Environmental Studies majors, I would still hope that they would consider taking some classes, if they’ve got an interest in environmental science … because I think that it’s so important to understand how the natural world works. It’s just one of the most pressing issues that we’re facing … I just want people to, as they’re walking to go get a bagel or whatever, just see the landscape that they’re operating in differently, to interpret it through a lens that is really important. It is our life support system.

SCW: Do you have any favorite memories or experiences from the time that you’ve been teaching here and working with students?

BH: I really do love being in the field with students … I think it’s so cool to watch people get their hands dirty, literally, in the soil and start to piece things together through that experiential process. That really is the thing that brings me the most delight. A lot of the things that are pretty special have to do with just seeing how students want to take the information that we’ve been discussing in a course and move forward with it. It’s very satisfying to hear from a student who’s not going to go into STEM say, ‘The intro course gave me a strong background and I want to do policy, but I feel like I understand this now.’ That makes my heart sing.

SCW: What do you do for fun outside of being here?

BH: I have two very small children. So I’m basically wrangling babies. We go hiking, skiing … kayaking. Just a lot of things that allow for quiet time outside, that has become less quiet with a three year old, and now a one year old. But it’s also really cool to watch these kiddos. Our three year old is really interested in the flowers that are coming in right now … [It’s] fun to transfer the appreciation for that experience outside.

SCW: What’s your favorite hike that you’ve taken in the area?

BH: Our first summer here, we went to Buffam Falls … We just went on this amazing hike in the woods along the stream, and it was beautiful. It’s so close … and there are a few pools that you can swim in ... All those years in Alaska, the one thing I really missed was swimming in New England in the summer.

SCW: What are some of the coolest or craziest things you’ve encountered in your research? I’m thinking about the bear charging, but you don’t have to tell that story.

BH: The bear incident ended up being part of that whole water quality story that came out of the Brooks Range. So in 2019, my colleague and I flew into the Salmon River in the Brooks Range [Alaska], which was made famous in ‘Coming Into the Country’ by John McPhee … Two things happened. One is that when we were flying in, we noticed that there was orange water in some of the tributaries that were going into the Salmon River. And we thought it was thermokarst, which is where the landscape collapses because permafrost has thawed. We thought it was sediment input, but we never saw visible subsidence anywhere. So we took that information, and we got dropped off on a gravel bar, and we were packrafting the Salmon River to go set up these research sites at treeline.

And we had these — honestly, I can’t really remember how many — but maybe like three notably antagonistic interactions with grizzly bears, who were very thin. The sort of thing where they don’t respond to any sort of warning activity ... they just were not deterred by loud noises. They were not deterred by anything … Normally, a warning will cause [a bear] to run off, like if you’ve sort of stumbled into each other. But these were predatory interactions.

The other piece of this was that we had expected to fish to eat dinner, we thought we would be fishing on this trip. And we were not able to catch any grayling, which we thought we’d be able to catch. And so low fish, weird orange water, and then these really hungry, angry bears. And it turns out that this pattern, of this orange discharge into the water, was then observed over the next two summers across … 30 different watersheds where my colleagues in Alaska made these observations. So yeah, that was a pretty wild trip.

I also got trampled by a hippopotamus when I was studying abroad. My tent got run over by a hippopotamus. I didn’t get crushed, but I was in the tent. Those are my two megafauna stories. Hippos totally freak me out … Research has led to a few pretty exciting things.