Ecologist and Climate Scientist
University of Wyoming
What would you say to an aspiring scientist?
“If you’re curious about the world and you’re making an observation and you ask a question about it, you’re doing science. So find a way to do science in a way that speaks to your heart, sings to you, that is first and foremost inspiring and fun, and then go for it!”
Could a small girl from Ukraine ever imagine that the US Department of Agriculture would use her research to plan more climate-friendly ways to farm? Like many scientists, Dr. Tamara Jane Zelikova fell in love with science while digging in her backyard. She didn’t learn that her deep-seated love for soil could become a profession until much later. Now an ecologist and climate scientist at the University of Wyoming, Jane studies how plants and microorganisms work together to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and store it safely in the ground. Inspired by the beautifully interconnected underground world of roots, bacteria, fungi, and protists, she knows that collaboration among scientists, communities, and governments is the only way to avert climate disaster.
Originally from Ukraine, Jane and her family emigrated to the US, landing in Brooklyn, New York. She attended Junior High in Bensonhurst, and loved how international her neighborhood was, how easily she could get around just by walking, and how her school was full of people from all over the world. One year later, they moved to a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, which was quite a culture shock. Her classmates were not always kind to the only immigrant in their group, and her accent made it difficult to fit in. Despite this, Jane was the first in her family to master English, making her responsible for logistics like getting gas and electricity connected to their new house when they moved.
Jane matriculated at the University of Georgia, and as the first in her family to attend an American college, she was lost about what it meant to declare a major. She initially decided on Anthropology and Russian Literature; she had already read all the required coursework for Russian lit, and humanities classes were easy for her. Then, to fulfill a science requirement, Jane chose ecology. “When I took my first ecology class, it just resonated so strongly, because I had spent a lot of time as a kid playing outside, and going for lots of hikes and adventures in the woods. It felt familiar, and interesting and challenging. I liked the questions that were being asked.” This class, and her love for the outdoors, inspired Jane to change her major to ecology. Though she had experience thinking critically thanks to her father, who was a mathematician, she found science classes challenging. Suddenly she had to study hard to master the topics at hand. Instead of feeling discouraged and returning to familiar humanities classes, she dug deeper. She enjoyed the challenge of science and relished the mental exercises that this new field brought.
Jane’s first projects were in the Appalachian forests, initially counting tree seedlings as an undergraduate and then tracking the mighty winnow ant as a graduate student at the University of Colorado. Though small in stature, these ants play a huge part in their ecosystem by sowing plant seeds and regulating the chemistry of the soil around their nests. Jane colored the backs of her tiny unsuspecting subjects with fluorescent paint to track and study how individual ants moved around and dispersed seeds. These neon nomads told a harrowing tale: oppressive heat waves caused by climate change were spurring the ants to migrate to higher elevations where temperatures were cooler, leaving behind the plants that relied on them to spread their seeds. The project inspired Jane to dedicate her career to climate science. Reflecting on this realization, she says, “As a scientist I am both fascinated and shocked by how rapidly climate change is disrupting ecological relationships that evolved over millennia. But science also reminds me that we are not powerless. We can slow and perhaps even halt climate change with some human ingenuity and courage.”1 While deeply formative for the rest of her career, Jane’s graduate project was mired in mistakes. She didn’t design her experiments well, so her first big study lacked strong statistical power. This setback might have led some to give up and pursue a different career path, but Jane learned from these early failings and worked to improve her experimental designs for her future research.
“But science also reminds me that we are not powerless. We can slow and perhaps even halt climate change with some human ingenuity and courage.”
Jane went to the United States Geological Science Research Station in Moab, Utah where she spent three years as a postdoc studying climate change and soil carbon sequestration. Next, she transitioned to the University of Wyoming to perform studies that simulated the changing climate and to explore how those changes affected plants, animals, and microbes in the soil. Jane had a long-term interest in science policy, and her findings at the University of Wyoming bolstered her desire to help the US government create policy that would help address climate change. She was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellowship, which seeks to bring scientists with PhDs into government to contribute to science-based policy-making. Jane moved to Washington, DC to work in the Department of Energy from 2015 to 2016. There, she explored how the US could implement the Paris Climate Agreement’s goals and drew up plans to decarbonize the power and industrial sectors.
Disheartened by the change in federal administration, Jane left Washington and returned to the West in 2016. She maintained her academic position at the University of Wyoming as Research Scientist while also working for the non-profit organization Carbon180, which brings together science, business, and policy to help address climate change. At Carbon180, Jane listened at length to farmers and ranchers in the western US to understand the barriers for implementing carbon sequestering strategies on their farms. She learned how simple changes to agricultural practices could have a big impact on the environment. “Keep living roots in the ground” is one such practice, and is a bedrock of her philosophy. Why? When plants perform photosynthesis, they pull carbon dioxide from the air. Microorganisms in the soil then use this carbon to live, thus redirecting dangerous greenhouse gases from our atmosphere to the ground. The best part is that the symbiosis between the plants and microorganisms is actually good for farmers! When soil is rich in microorganisms, it is more fertile, which means chemical fertilizers don’t need to be applied to make crops grow. Farmers spend less money and are less exposed to harmful chemicals. Jane’s work with Carbon180 was included in the Biden Administration’s US Department of Agriculture document “Agriculture Innovation Agenda”, which is a roadmap for how we can incorporate more climate-friendly practices into growing our food.
“Collaboration is just way more fun, and the lone wolf, lone brilliant genius scientist narrative is false. That’s not how science works.”
Just as microorganisms cooperate with plants and animals to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, working together is central to Jane’s philosophy as a scientist. “Collaboration is just way more fun, and the lone wolf, lone brilliant genius scientist narrative is false. That’s not how science works,” she says. Maybe it’s part of her extroverted personality, she posits, but she’s found that working together makes science more fruitful and enjoyable. She credits collaboration with expanding her scientific horizons and exposing her to new fields like ecosystem science, biogeochemistry, and climate change research. She’s taken this spirit of collaboration and put it into practice in Costa Rica, where she and her colleagues are exploring how leaf cutter ants affect the carbon cycle around their nests.
Jane knows that solving the climate crisis will require collaboration across disciplines and among scientists. Too often, climate scientists from the global South are ignored despite the fact that their communities are the most vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change. Jane is currently writing an article that synthesizes and communicates ideas from 89 experts from across the globe with wide expertise and from diverse backgrounds. In this exciting work, she will seek to identify the big questions that scientists feel should be the focus for the next ten years of carbon removal research. Hopefully, by defining and communicating these ideas, scientists, governments, and society will be able to see the path forward and integrate inclusive and equitable solutions for addressing climate change.
Jane’s efforts to lift up others’ contributions to science stems from noticing that not all voices are heard equally. As a woman, she found that her opinions and ideas were subtly dismissed until other scientists, typically men, made the same statement. Like many women scientists, Jane learned to manage or ignore these types of behaviors when directed at her, but she was more indignant when people around her were silenced. It was the presidential election in 2016 that was a true tipping point for her. That pushed her to co-found the global grassroots organization 500 Women Scientists with an open letter to the former president extolling the importance of science and women scientists in our society. “If we want to make society more equitable and just,” Jane says, “we have to really work hard to address these issues in science and in our own institutions.” 500 Women Scientists has an ambitious mission to make science open, inclusive, and accessible and to fight racism, patriarchy, and oppressive societal norms. Now, with thousands of members across the world, the organization provides fellowships, facilitates mentoring through local chapters around the world, and hosts a global database of women experts.
“If we want to make society more equitable and just,” Jane says, “we have to really work hard to address these issues in science and in our own institutions.”
While being a scientist is a central part of who Jane is, she identifies as much more than that. She cares about other people, and her relationships define her. She is a daughter, a sister, and an aunt, a partner, and a loyal friend. Her dog Marvin is dear to her heart and is instrumental in keeping her going. She acknowledges that being a climate scientist can be demoralizing—too often, these scientists’ warnings are ignored and instead industry continues to destroy our environment for profit—but her daily walks with her dog keep Jane centered and motivated.
She offers this wisdom to folks who are interested in getting into science: “There are a million ways to be a scientist. If you’re curious about the world and you’re making an observation and you ask a question about it, you’re doing science. So find a way to do science in a way that speaks to your heart, sings to you, that is first and foremost inspiring and fun, and then go for it!” Science is for everybody, she says, and thanks to her work, the entire world stands to benefit from Jane’s science.
1 Zelikova, TJ (2020). Solutions Underfoot. In Elizabeth Johnson, A. and Wilkinson, K. (Eds.), All We Can Save (pp. 287-292). New York: One World, Penguin Random House LLC.
by Rachel Duffié