Kent State Geologist Wins Grant to Study Climate Change Factors and Inspire Young Scientists

The greenhouse effect is one of the most widely known causes of global climate change. It is currently caused by an excess of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere due to burning of fossil fuels. Some natural processes can help slow climate change by removing CO2 from the atmosphere. For example, plants filter CO2 out of air and transfer carbon into soil where it can be sequestered for decades to centuries.

One of the factors that influences the ability of plants and soils to store carbon is the focus of a new study by Elizabeth Herndon, Ph.D., assistant professor of geology in Kent State University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) presented its prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award to Dr. Herndon for her project, “Manganese Biogeochemistry and Impacts on Carbon Storage in Plant-Soil Systems.” The five-year grant is expected to total $487,000.

The award honors Dr. Herndon as one of the most promising up-and-coming researchers in her field and includes funding for laboratory research and educational outreach.

Dr. Herndon joined Kent State in 2014. She holds dual bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and biochemistry and in earth and planetary sciences from Washington University in St. Louis, and she earned her Ph.D. in geosciences and biogeochemistry from Penn State University. Dr. Herndon completed her postdoctoral work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The study, which builds on some of her previous research as a Ph.D. student, focuses on the role that the element manganese plays in controlling how much carbon is stored in soils.

“A lot of people think about how other factors like climate control carbon storage, but not a lot of people think about soil minerals, particularly manganese oxide minerals,” Dr. Herndon says. “But there’s some evidence that suggests it’s really important, so I took my prior knowledge about manganese cycling and am applying it to understanding how manganese may influence carbon cycling.”

Plants need manganese to photosynthesize, the process by which they use sunlight to process carbon, generate chlorophyll to grow and release oxygen as a byproduct. However, too much or too little manganese can impair plants’ ability to grow and photosynthesize, limiting how much CO2 they can filter from the air.

In the soil, manganese oxides may also break down organic matter from decomposing plants, turning it back into CO2 or into small compounds that wash out of the soil. That organic matter is then quickly removed from the soil, inhibiting the soil’s ability to store carbon away from the air.

Dr. Herndon says manganese toxicity is most prevalent in areas with a long history of pollution from fossil fuel combustion and coal mining, as manganese is a byproduct of both. These activities can also increase soil acidity, which increases how much manganese plants take up from the soil.

Researchers who receive NSF CAREER Awards are also asked to incorporate an educational component to their project. Dr. Herndon is working with Bridget Mulvey, Ph.D., assistant professor in Kent State’s School of Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies, to develop inquiry-based educational activities in the earth sciences.

“A lot of this grant supports graduate and undergraduate students in their research,” Dr. Herndon says. “It’s going to help train the next generation of scientists. Hopefully, these people will go on to work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.”

Both she and NSF also want to communicate the science to the broader public.

“My students and I, working with Dr. Mulvey, are going to be developing educational activities based on our research that are geared toward K-12 students,” she says.

Graduate and undergraduate students in Dr. Herndon’s lab will create science kits that include hands-on activities. They will donate the completed kits to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which will loan them out to K-12 teachers in the Cleveland area.

For more information about Kent State’s Department of Geology, visit

POSTED: Friday, August 24, 2018 09:58 AM
UPDATED: Saturday, May 25, 2024 08:48 PM
Dan Pompili