E&E Faculty Receives CAREER Award

With prestigious NSF grant, Professor Seppe Kuehn will study soil microbiomes

Ecology and Evolution Assistant Professor Seppe Kuehn has received the highly competitive CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.

The five-year grant project, whose full title is “Mechanisms of functional robustness in soil microbiomes”, seeks to provide new insights into the soil microbiome’s resilience and adaptability in the context of changing environments.

“Soils mark a new direction for our lab,” said Dr. Kuehn, who credits the work by E&E graduate student Kiseok Lee for “igniting” this new direction.

E&E assistant professor Seppe Kuehn

Dr. Kuehn's interest in soils is two-fold, basic and applied. “On a basic level, soils represent one of the most complex microbial ecosystems on the planet, with thousands of taxa,” he says. “How can we understand/predict the dynamics and metabolism of these very complex ecosystems? What theory do we need? Can AI help?”

On the applied side, “soils are very important for global carbon and nitrogen cycles,” he points out. “Understanding fluxes of key greenhouse gasses (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide) requires a deeper understanding of soil metabolism.”

To that end, the research will combine sophisticated experimental approaches with advanced mathematical modeling to “predict changes in soil microbiome metabolism under environmental stresses.” The final goal is to use the new insights gained to offer strategies for enhancing soil health and agricultural productivity in the face of global environmental changes.

Notably, the project also includes a vigorous outreach plan geared towards “integrating mathematical and biological thinking” to foster new scientists equipped with the knowledge and experimental tools to tackle the challenges of climate change. The three-component educational program will engage elementary school students, secondary school teachers, and undergraduates by developing curricula for Chicago public schools (6-8th grade) and math teachers in New York City, and a new course in data science for biologists at the University of Chicago.

The CAREER program is aimed at providing long-term funding for early-career faculty who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.” Congratulations to Dr. Kuehn, whose CAREER research will officially begin in mid-July and run through 2029.