Conservation Conversation with Dr. Angela Kent

Dr. Angela Kent is an Associate Professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a focus in microbes and how they impact nutrient cycles. Today, we discuss some of Dr. Kent’s research, current environmental issues, and what students can do to help.

Why did you decide to come teach at the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences at U of I? My background is in microbiology, but as a microbiologist I’m interested in a lot of environmental problems. The Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences department is really a great fit for me because I like the application of what I do to environmental problems.

What research projects are you currently working on? One of my favorite projects right now is looking at plant-microbe interactions, particularly in the nitrogen cycle. I’m interested in finding what plant genotypes can recruit microbial communities that have nitrogen processes that contribute to sustainability. This is important if we want to move towards crop systems where we fertilize less, so we need plants that do a good job of partnering with microbes to provide nutrients. I’m also looking at the connection between the microbiome and animal health with regards to animal conservation. We bring in eggs or the young of threatened species, rear them in a managed habitat and then release them into the wild when they’re bigger. That’s all good, but if we’re keeping the environment so clean that they’re not exposed to an appropriate microbiome, their immune system might not be as robust as it should be.

You mentioned problems with the nitrogen cycle. A lot of people might not be aware of some of the issues with that, can you tell me more about that? In order to feed all the people in the world we fertilize our crops. However, it’s really easy to over-fertilize crops. The extra nitrogen can be leached out of the field, especially with the way that we manage the water table. It makes it really easy for nitrogen to leach out of the soil, into the tile drainage system, into streams and eventually into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, which results in algal blooms and dead zones.

In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing environmental issues today? I wish that there was less controversy around climate change. I think that there’s a lot of special interests that have a vested interest in denying climate change and that clouds the issue and prevents us from actually addressing the issue. We also take water availability and water quality for granted. And an unknown one is soil. We are losing topsoil and we’re exhausting soil fertility. That’s something that people don’t appreciate because we act like soil is always there.

Environmental issues can be very scary sometimes. Is there anything that you would suggest to students at the University who are concerned about the environment but don’t know the best way to help? I realize that a lot of times we’re limited in what we can contribute, but I think there are ways people can help. They can start by looking at their own patterns of consumption and where they can lower their consumption. Project Green Challenge in October has a bunch of different ideas for individual actions that people can take. People also don’t understand the externalities for everything that they do. What’s the environmental cost of your cell phone, of your diet? I’d also say to get involved in activities to raise awareness of these issues. The Student Sustainable Farm or Students for Environmental Concerns are some other activities that raise awareness and help promote individual actions. Vote and call your representatives when issues of environmental quality are brought up. These are things that individuals can do. That’s the power that we have–the power of voting and the power of purchasing–that can make a difference.

– By: Laura Whipple

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