Lisa Schulte Moore, a professor of natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State University, has been named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. The prestigious awards, sometimes called "genius grants," identify scientists, artists, entrepreneurs and others who have demonstrated exceptional creativity and who show promise for important future advances.
Schulte Moore is the first ISU faculty member to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. She's conducted groundbreaking research as a landscape ecologist, working closely with farmers to build more sustainable and resilient agricultural systems. She pushes the boundaries of her field by incorporating other disciplines traditionally thought of as beyond the scope of ecology — economics, engineering and sociology, for instance — to address critical challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, water quality and rural depopulation.
"I think of my work as putting together a puzzle, and I'm always looking for the missing puzzle piece," she says. "Where do I have to go, or what do I have to learn to get the next piece? I've found that sometimes you have to build and paint the puzzle piece yourself, and that's part of the fun of science."
"Dr. Schulte Moore represents the best of Iowa State University. Her selection for the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship is an extraordinary endorsement of her promising research and scholarly excellence in agriculture, ecology, forestry and human-landscape interactions," says ISU President Wendy Wintersteen. "She is a true land-grant champion. Dr. Schulte Moore recognizes the value of incorporating diverse disciplines to her research in order to address society's urgent and complex global challenges."
Contributions to ag, conservation
Schulte Moore, a first-generation college student in her family, received a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1993, a master's degree from the University of Minnesota at Duluth and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She joined the faculty at Iowa State University in 2003.
Much of her research addresses the integration of native perennial prairie plants into agricultural systems to support new markets, and protect water quality, soil and wildlife habitat. She's published more than 100 scientific and educational articles in journals such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; Ecology; and Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment.
Schulte Moore's instrumental role in the prairie STRIPS (science-based trials of row crops integrated with prairie strips) research team has produced numerous advancements in the understanding and management of native prairie on agricultural landscapes that show far-reaching environmental benefits. Conventional corn and soybean farming can deplete topsoil, and nutrient runoff from agricultural fields can pollute waterways and contribute to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. But she and her colleagues have shown that prairie strips can reduce soil loss from nearby farm fields by 95%, and nitrogen and phosphorus runoff by 70% to 80% by putting more roots in the ground to hold soil and nutrients in place.
Schulte Moore has contributed to numerous outreach efforts to encourage the adoption of prairie strips by farmers and landowners, and she said their input has been essential to the program's success. Prairie strips are now in use in 14 states on more than 115,000 acres of cropland. The federal Conservation Reserve Program recognized prairie strips as a conservation practice eligible for government financial support for the first time following the 2018 Farm Bill. USDA sought input from Schulte Moore and other ISU personnel when developing policies to implement prairie strips under the law.
Schulte Moore also is the lead developer of the People In Ecosystems Watershed Integration (PEWI), a computer simulation that shows how land-use practices impact soil, water, agricultural production and wildlife habitat. She also leads the Consortium for Cultivating Human and Natural reGenerative Enterprise (C-CHANGE), which received a $10 million grant from the USDA to develop new value chains for U.S. farmers, particularly the generation of renewable natural gas using biomass from perennial grasses. She says this kind of research, developing new markets and creating new incentives for producers to establish diverse perennial vegetation on farms, will form the backbone of her future research.
"I'm working to show the full value of the Midwest's native ecosystems and figure out how to turn it into financial value for farmers and rural communities," she says.
Promise for future advances
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced 25 MacArthur Fellows for 2021 on Sept. 28. Schulte Moore will receive a $625,000, no-strings-attached award as part of the fellowship as an investment in the potential of her work.
The foundation selects fellows who demonstrate exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments, and the potential for the fellowship to facilitate future creative work.
Nominees are brought to the program's attention through a constantly changing pool of invited external nominators chosen from as broad a range of fields and areas of interest as possible, according to the foundation's website. Nominations are evaluated by an independent selection committee composed of about a dozen leaders in the arts, sciences and humanities professions, and for-profit and nonprofit communities. Nominators, evaluators and selectors all serve anonymously, and their correspondence is kept confidential to avoid outside influence on the selection process.
Although the fellowship is an individual recognition, Schulte Moore credits the collaborative atmosphere at ISU as an essential element of her success.
"My work isn't possible without great teammates," she says. "I'm truly honored and humbled by this award, but I can't do my work without the help and expertise of many people at Iowa State and beyond."