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Science Journey: How Soil Microbes Help Us Fight Climate Change

Hannah Dion-Kirschner is lab gear while holding a vial

Hannah Dion-Kirschner
Geobiology graduate student

About the Presentation

Climate Change • Microbiology • Music • Scientific Method

Increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing changes to Earth's climate. These changes put plants, animals, and humans at risk. Some organisms do the planet a favor by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The lab that I am a part of studies microbes—tiny organisms that can typically only be seen under a microscope—in soil that eat methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. We want to understand how these methane-eating microbes will respond to ongoing changes in the environment. I will discuss my research and share my personal story, including what designing science experiments has in common with practicing a musical instrument.

About the Speaker

Hannah Dion-Kirschner as a child at a piano

Hannah Dion-Kirschner is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She grew up playing piano and French horn, climbing trees, and reading every book she could get her hands on. During her first year of college, where she went originally to study music performance, Hannah learned that it was possible to have a career working outdoors and learning about our planet. She began working in a lab studying samples from Greenland that could tell us about Earth's past climate, and she was immediately hooked.

Hannah now investigates biological processes that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. She hopes to help people better understand the two-way relationship between climate change and biology. In her spare time, she volunteers for Caltech's GO-Outdoors, which provides geoscience educational materials, lessons, and field trips to Pasadena classrooms. Hannah still loves to read, hike, and play music.

Vocabulary

Enrich your knowledge around the lecture topic by reviewing relevant terms, provided by Hannah.

The change over time in Earth's processes and cycles, including shifts in temperature, sea level, and the intensity of storms. While Earth's climate has changed throughout history due to its position in space relative to the sun and natural occurrences like volcanic eruptions, the planet's current warming trend is extremely likely to be the result of human activity since the mid-19th century.

A gas that traps thermal radiation from the earth, heating the planet (a process known as the greenhouse effect). Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. While greenhouse gases are naturally occurring, human activities, including burning fossil fuels, produce them in large and harmful quantities.

A color-less, odor-less greenhouse gas. (If you have a gas stove at home, it likely uses methane to cook.) This gas is more potent but less abundant and shorter lived in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Methane is emitted naturally (e.g., from cow burps) and by humans (e.g., from landfills, coal mines, agriculture, and oil and natural gas operations).

Beneficial bacteria that live in almost all the soil on the earth and eat methane as food. The name literally means "methane eaters." 

Tiny organisms that can typically only be seen under a microscope.

Also known as the scientific process. A set of steps used to perform research. Researchers following the scientific method typically develop and then test a hypothesis (which is an idea that can be supported or rejected by evidence), then test the hypothesis by observing the cause and effect of different experiments or natural processes.

About the Series

In Science Journeys, Caltech graduate students and postdoctoral scholars share their research to inspire scientific curiosity. Programs are designed for middle and high schoolers, but all are welcome.

These programs are made possible through the generosity of the Friends of Beckman Auditorium.

If you have questions, please email Mary Herrera at mhh@caltech.edu.

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