Anonymous $4M gift establishes postdoctoral research prize to address climate and resilience challenges

The University of Arizona has received an anonymous $4 million gift to establish a new Endowed Postdoctoral Research Associate in Climate Change and Human Resiliency. The gift ensures funding to support multiple postdoctoral researchers over the coming years, each serving for two years.

The gift was announced Nov. 3 as part of the public launch of the university's $3 billion fundraising campaign, Fuel Wonder. The launch, coinciding with Homecoming celebrations, included the announcement of $118.65 million in new gifts that will ignite the aspirations and goals of students, faculty and staff. Since 2017, when the counting for the campaign began, the university has raised a total of $2,040,735,512.

"The University of Arizona extends its deepest gratitude to the donors for their visionary support, which enables groundbreaking research and fosters a new generation of scholars dedicated to environmental resilience," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "Through their generosity, the university and our partners can drive positive change and contribute to a sustainable future for our planet."

Magda Garbowski

Magda Garbowski

The inaugural postdoctoral research associate, Magda Garbowski, began her position this semester after completing a USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wyoming.

"Dr. Garbowski is a rising star in the field of dryland ecology in the Southwest, so we're quite lucky to have her here," said Elise Gornish, Garbowski's adviser and associate specialist of restoration ecology in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Garbowski, who received her doctoral degree in ecology from Colorado State University, is focused on ecological restoration, the process of assisting the recovery of damaged, degraded or destroyed ecosystems.

"Dr. Garbowski was chosen because her work will provide benefit to the world," said Sharon Collinge, director of the Arizona Institute for Resilience. "Restoration is a proactive, community-engaged approach to the critical global issue of arid lands degradation."

"With healthy ecosystems, you have healthy communities. They are critical to how we live, play and work as a society," said Garbowski.

The unique ecology of the Southwest offers a window into the future of restoration under global climate change and can serve as a model for restoration in other drylands around the world. Ecological restoration efforts in the arid Southwest, historically, have been largely ineffective, with success rates hovering between just 5 and 10% due to the unique challenges of its climate, including drought.

"We can spread all the seeds we want, but without precipitation, many species fail to germinate and establish," said Garbowski.

High winds and critters can also complicate restoration efforts by blowing away or removing seeds from where they were placed.

In an effort to boost the success rates of ecological restoration in this region, Garbowski will study plant traits – identifying which plants are most likely to survive in restoration settings. Scientists who study plant traits explore a diverse range of characteristics, including everything from the timing of when they flower to the size and shape of their leaves, and determine how these characteristics influence plant survival.

Garbowski's work will focus on root traits including root length, depth and branching patterns, all of which influence water and nutrient uptake and soil stability. She will study the roots of a variety of plants that are native to the region to determine which root traits offer the best chance of survival in the arid Southwest. 

"Folks have been studying plant traits for some time now, but not necessarily in restoration contexts. But if we can use this kind of science to predict how a plant will perform in a specific environment, we can figure out which traits are going to allow plants to do well in conditions such as drought," said Garbowski.

Garbowski's research is timely with a surge in restoration efforts across the country, many of which are aimed at mitigating the aftermath of wildfires and other disturbances.

"This generous gift has given the University of Arizona a remarkable opportunity to foster the science of ecological restoration while nurturing the development of future leaders dedicated to tackling climate and environmental challenges," said Elliott Cheu, interim senior vice president for research and innovation at the University of Arizona.

President Joe Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed in November 2021, includes significant investment in the conservation and stewardship of America's public lands. The law allocates $1.4 billion for ecosystem restoration and resilience, focusing on habitat restoration, invasive species control and conservation efforts for at-risk species. The U.S. Department of the Interior has identified sagebrush steppe ecosystem restoration in western states as one of its priority projects.

The law also includes $400 million for states, tribes and territories to participate in voluntary restoration efforts, $70 million to implement a national revegetation effort, $50 million for ecological health restoration on federal lands, $50 million for Colorado River endangered species recovery and conservation programs, and $45 million to improve resilience of recreation sites on federal lands.

Additionally, the United Nations has declared the years 2021 to 2030 as the UN Decade on ecosystem restoration, focused on "preventing, halting, and reversing loss of nature" and encompassing global restoration initiatives. According to the United Nations, the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration "has identified 10 first flagship initiatives that illustrate the breadth and promise of restoration work already underway. Together, the 10 flagships aim to restore more than 60 million hectares − an area roughly equal to the whole of Madagascar or Ukraine − and create more than 13 million jobs."

"We're spending a lot of money on restoration across the West and ecological restoration is a very quickly growing field. Given those low success rates in dryland ecosystems, we have a lot of room for improvement – room to become more targeted and thoughtful, and to save resources by getting the right species in the right place," said Garbowski.

The impact of the new endowed postdoctoral position extends far beyond academia. Garbowski's work will not only have direct applicability for researchers and land managers, but will hopefully improve landscapes upon which communities depend for food production, water resources, recreational activities and more.

"We are in an era of rapid global change, and we need to understand how these changes will affect us. I'm appreciative of this opportunity and very grateful that donors are funding research at the intersection of ecosystem and human resiliency," said Garbowski.

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