“It's very evident. Everything that happens affects both people and nature.”
— Efrat Sheffer
Efrat Sheffer’s passion is researching the complex interactions on watersheds and landscapes heavily impacted by humans. To some, focusing on lands and waters affected by human activity might seem an unusual activity for a conservationist. Not Sheffer.
“In Israel, where I grew up, there are no pristine ecosystems,” she says. “People have been living there and impacting lands and waters for thousands of years. It’s very evident. Everything that happens affects both people and nature.”
Sheffer, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton, is now researching lands and waters affected by agricultural development as a NatureNet Fellow.
Some human impacts are, of course, highly visible. But Sheffer specializes in looking at complex interactions, and in this case one of the most pervasive impacts of agricultural development is almost invisible: the run-off of nitrates into the watershed and depletion of nitrogen from intensively utilized soils. Farmers use nitrogen as fertilizer, and the run-off can not only damage ecosystems—the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is one highly publicized example—but also pollute drinking water for people. Agriculture is depleting the natural sources of nitrogen and leaving impoverished soils.
Sheffer will research not only at areas in current agricultural production, but also at abandoned lands.
“Agriculture must become more intensive to meet increasing demands for food,” she says. “But as it becomes more intensive, there will also be abandoned lands. What do we as conservationists do with those landscapes? How do we restore them?”
She will be working with researchers and farmers to develop strategies to restore lands and biodiversity by using natural nitrogen sources, including planting trees that can symbiotically fix atmospheric nitrogen.
Part of the goal will be to model the interaction between agricultural development and ecosystems so that the nitrogen-fixing strategies can apply broadly.
“There are a lot of places where conservationists are doing various projects to fix nitrogen, but these projects are often done on very local scales,” Sheffer says. “But they’re not asking the questions about what’s happening beyond their project. There is a real need to look broadly at agricultural development and how it interacts with ecosystems.”
As a life-long conservationist, Sheffer is excited for the opportunities of the fellowship—not only will it allow her to conduct rigorous research, but it will also be tested and applied quickly.
“The fellowship allows me to test ideas that are much more applicable,” she says. “It also allows me to test ideas immediately. A lot of academic research is purely theoretical. This fellowship is structured so that we can test different management solutions and different nitrogen-fixing strategies. We’ll be able to have rapid answers and see how systems react to different management actions.”