Faculty Spotlight Chris Blackwood

Q&A with Chris Blackwood, P.h.D, Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and Co-Director of the Environmental Science and Design Research Initiative

Office of Sustainabilty September 2020 Newsletter

Chris Blackwood, Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences

What is your area of research?
I study how plants, soil, and microbes interact.  Its tough being a plant, having to extract nutrients from dissolving soil minerals or decaying organic matter.  Plant roots usually have help from some of the soil microbes, while other soil microbes attack roots and cause plant disease.  The diversity of plants and microbes creates a huge range of scenarios, so we usually try to look for patterns at the whole-ecosystem level.  Our ultimate goal is to understand how biodiversity is sustained within ecosystems and how human activities will affect the environment.  The specific environmental problems we have addressed recently include soil carbon storage, forest restoration, and benefits of green roofs.

What made you interested in pursing this area?
Going into science (ecology) seemed like a way to help build the broad knowledge-base that we need to achieve environmental goals.  And the truth is that I have always loved being outdoors.  It almost doesn't matter how bad the conditions are...although the thickest clouds of biting black flies can get pretty bad.  

What is your favorite part of your position?
Helping undergraduate and graduate students perform research.  This involves all aspects of my position, as I help students learn about the scientific knowledge we already have, develop creative questions and approaches, and discover new scientific knowledge for others to use.  

What has been a favorite course that you teach? What do you enjoy about it?
Although I enjoy all the courses I teach, my favorite might be "Soil Biology".  Soil is under-appreciated but critically important in most environmental issues (nutrient runoff, climate change, agriculture, invasive species, etc.).  This is an upper-division course, in which students start to read and discuss scientific papers, often for the first time.  We also start to see how lots of things fit together, integrating microbiology, geology, botany, ecology, and chemistry.  

What are your favorite accomplishments or projects you have worked on so far? 
In addition, our team of researchers has had the opportunity to plant trees and talk science with hundreds of volunteers, of all ages and backgrounds, on big planting days.I am really enjoying working with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park on a large forest restoration project.  The project has involved planting ~2000 trees, so far, in former construction mines that are owned by the park.  We have designed a project that will answer important scientific questions, as well as make an immediate positive impact on some of their most degraded lands.  

What is ESDRI?
ESDRI is the Environmental Science and Design Research Initiative. I am co-director along with Diane Davis-Sikora, associate professor in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design. ESDRI provides support for faculty and students involved in research addressing environmental issues, highlights their accomplishments, and develops opportunities for interdisciplinary activities.  "Research" is being defined broadly to include any kind of scholarly activity.  We like to involve art, design, and social science as much as environmental science, as long as environmental issues are being addressed somehow.  A few of our activities include an annual ESDRI Symposium, providing seed grant funding, and supporting summer undergraduate research through the SURE program.

How can students and faculty get involved?
Students and anyone elsecan get involved by joining the ESDRI listserv here to get a weekly email with events, news, and opportunities.  They can also look at the ESDRI website to find faculty that are doing research that interests them.  Faculty that would like to be officially involved should contact us at ESDRI@kent.edu

What do you want the people of Kent State to know about you and your position as Biological Sciences professor (or any other roles you have)?
I'd like to share the huge amount of effort all professors and staff put into going remote this year as a COVID-19 safety precaution.  The students in my remote classes have been patient and supportive as we work out the kinks, which I really appreciate.  There has also been a lot of behind-the-scenes work, such as developing new content, learning software, developing policies, etc. This is not only for classes, but many other events as well.  For example, we were one week away from having the seventh annual ESDRI Symposium last March when the university shut down. We pivoted as quickly as we could, and now many of the Symposium sessions have been successfully moved online.

Thank you Dr. Chris Blackwood!