Biology professor Caitlin Hicks Pries can trace her interest in soil science all the way back to when she was growing up in New England, digging clams with her grandmother on Cape Cod.
“So we would just be knee deep in a salt marsh with buckets and shovels and nets and just getting really dirty and really immersing myself in mud,” Hicks Pries says. “Those are some of my fondest childhood memories.”
The clam digging outings were an early step on a career path studying the interactions among soils, snow, and climate for the assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. In early December, on the very day she was about to press “submit” on her tenure packet application, Hicks Pries learned she was the recipient of a five-year, $1.1 million National Science Foundation CAREER grant.
“What’s special about a CAREER grant is that it recognizes not just research, but also your teaching contributions as well,” Hicks Pries says. She explains that it’s a good fit for Dartmouth’s teacher-scholar model, where professors incorporate their research into their teaching.
With the grant, Hicks Pries will examine how decreasing snow cover due to climate change affects the underlying soil processes such as microbial decomposition, greenhouse gas emissions, and nutrient cycles.
Hicks Pries noted that previous winter climate studies have looked at conditions when snow is removed. But she felt that simple snow removal was missing out on a critical component.
“I want to do a more realistic experiment with snow because the snow doesn’t just disappear,” Hicks Pries says. “It melts.”
Historically, Northern New England’s steady snowpack kept the underlying soil dry and mostly unfrozen all winter long. With warmer winters such as this one, however, the snow melts, saturating the ground. And without an insulating blanket of snow, the water in the ground freezes, creating a thick ice layer that impedes the diffusion of gases such as oxygen that soil microbes need during the winter.
“The implications of what’s happening in the winter have the potential to be felt throughout the spring and growing season as well,” Hicks Pries says.
Her NSF-funded study will be conducted at the Dartmouth Skiway, which forms an intersection of three things that Hicks Pries loves: snow, skiing, and science. It’s a good site, Hicks Pries says, with plenty of snow and access to electricity to warm and melt snow for the study.
“Also, it’s cool to have it at a ski mountain,” she says. “I’m there all the time anyway.”
But the excitement Hicks Pries feels about her grant is tempered by concerns over the rapidly warming winters.
“I love winter,” she says. “I always missed it when I was gone, living in Florida and California (for graduate studies) … But it’s so changed. If anything, the winters here are like the winters I grew up with in Massachusetts because of climate change.”
Though Hicks Pries doesn’t imagine these trends will reverse anytime soon, she thinks snow remains an important topic for research and in the classes that she teaches. Hicks Pries is planning a course titled the Ecology of Winter, which focuses on the importance of seasonally snow-covered landscapes, and this spring, she’ll dedicate a week of her Global Change Biology course to winter.
“It’s important to bear witness to this,” she says. “It’s unfortunate that this is the time that we live in, but I think we need to be clear headed about what’s going on.”
Professor Tom Jack, who chairs the Department of Biological Sciences, echoes the relevance of Hicks Pries’ research.
“I think her work could have very broad implications for climate change,” he says.
Jack notes that Hicks Pries, who came to Dartmouth in 2017 after graduating from Middlebury and getting a master’s degree and PhD from the University of Florida, is playing an increasingly important role within the department. She runs an active lab, bringing in funding and academic collaboration, and she integrates Dartmouth students into her field research at local sites. The CAREER grant will also involve Dartmouth students in the collection and measurement of data at the Skiway site.
“She has a strong record of mentorship,” Jack says.
Jack adds that Hicks Pries excels in the classroom, sharing her research insights with students, which Jack says is an important part of Dartmouth’s teacher-scholar model.
“She’s a terrific communicator, and she’s got a ton of energy,” he said.
Hicks Pries was named the Outstanding Early Career Scientist by the Biogeosciences Division of the European Geosciences Union in 2020 and also received the S.A. Wilde Early Career Award from the Soil Science Society of America in 2018.
One of the undergraduates working in Hicks Pries’ lab this term is Eva Legge ’22, who graduates this spring.
Legge took Hicks Pries’ Ecology course during her freshman year and found her to be an engaging and and confident professor who inspired her to pursue science studies.
“I am so excited for her that she was able to receive this CAREER grant, although I’m not the least bit surprised she was selected for this award,” Legge said in an email.
Recently, Hicks Pries has been working with Legge on her senior thesis. Following a late-night review of her data that spiraled into self-doubt, Legge reached out to Hicks Pries, who calmly helped her find the direction her research needed to go.
“I feel well-prepared to enter graduate school, and Professor Hicks Pries went above and beyond to make my thesis project the best it could be,” Legge says.
Another aspect of the grant is community involvement. Hicks Pries will recruit community members across the Upper Valley to monitor snow conditions in their yards with equipment, training, and a website so everyone can compare data. This “space-for-time” substitution broadens the data collection net to help compensate for the relatively short time of the experiment.
“So we aim to have this record across different microclimates of how the snow changes,” Hicks Pries says.
Community involvement also helps incorporate a sense of place in her research.
“When I think about what makes Dartmouth different from other institutions, one of those is our location,” Hicks Pries says. “Using this amazing, unique location that we have as a way to teach is really important to me.”
Members of the Dartmouth and Upper Valley communities interested in being part of the snow monitoring study should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.