FNR ATTRACT Fellows: Stan Schymanski (biologist)

FNR ATTRACT Fellows: Stan Schymanski (biologist)


I love plants because they are so variable all the time I experience things I did not expect To be able to see things we weren’t able to see before – this is what I really find exciting My name is Stan Schymanski I’m a biologist and ATTRACT Fellow at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology In my research, I investigate how climate change and environmental change in general may effect vegetation and water resources and what our landscapes may look like in 100 years’ time. My interest in plants has been there for a long time, During my PhD I worked on hydrology, which is the science of water resources I was doing research about the interactions between plants and water resources In most environments, vegetation is the link between water resources and the atmosphere In semi-arid environments, 90% of all the water that does not run off, is transpired by vegetation, it does not just evaporate from the soil This means it is important to understand how much water is used by vegetation, and how this is affected by climate change, in order to understand the effect of climate change on our water resources These little holes here are called ‘stomata’, which means ‘mouth’ in Latin. They are little pores that plants use to regulate their gas exchange. This means they take up CO2 for photosynthesis, but also loose water at the same time This is the connection between the water cycle and vegetation Most of the water transpired from the catchment leaves the soil through the roots and goes into the atmosphere through these little holes There are billions of such little holes, they regulate how much water is lost from the soil to the atmosphere The plants can open and close these holes at a very fast rate My research is about how plants actually use this tool to adapt to the environment When we think about climate change, we usually think about global warming By fossil fuel burning, we increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere Since plants rely on carbon dioxide in order to grow, they react directly to this carbon dioxide, before the climate warms The first effect is that they can close their stomatas (mouths) a bit and still take up the same amount of CO2, because there is more of it in the air This way, they can actually loose less water People previously have concluded this means we are saved, but if there is more water in the ground, in some environments this will mean more plants, which could actually even lower the water table These feedbacks make the balance very complicated We have to go out in nature and observe what leaves do, form a hypothesis of why they do it, how this happens. With this device we can measure how much CO2 the plants take up and how much water they loose. Inside this chamber, we can precisely manipulate the conditions of the microclimate of the leaf, we can even manipulate the wind speed to see how the stomatas respond to wind, increased or decreased humidity, different temperatures and so on. Then in the lab, I try to reproduce certain features of the leaves and see if they physically behave in the way we think they do It’s hard to connect what we measure in one leaf to the environment this leaf actually experienced In order to be able to do this, we need sensors on the scale of a leaf that can sense what a leaf senses I have the opportunity to collaborate with great people in, for example, Material Sciences. They develop sensors which are at micrometric scale We can make them very small, we can put many of them on a surface, exactly in the position where a leaf is Then we can measure wind speed, surface temperature We can measure all of these things with one combination of heaters and ultra small temperature sensors It opens up quite amazing opportunities. With this we are hoping to better understand where a plant puts the leaves, what properties the leaves have in different positions Once we understand those principles, I want to be able to put those principles into a model which converts this knowledge into predictions The ultimate goal is to be able to predict how vegetation is going to respond to factors such as CO2 in the medium and in the long term. We want to know how it will affect and respond to water resources. When we extract water for our own use, for example, we channel rivers which increase the runoff. All these things can affect vegetation I would like to be able to predict, before we make a mistake, run a model and at least use it as a warning to show what might happen if we make a certain impact The ATTRACT Fellowship is really attractive – you get the freedom to do what you are interested in, what you are passionate about Of course it is very competitive, you need to describe quite well what you want to do, but you are flexible enough to follow up surprises that come up along the way

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