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Fulbrighter Alejandro Salazar-Villegas is fighting climate change from the ground up

Alejandro Salazar-Villegas is a Fulbright scholar currently studying biological sciences at Purdue University. His research focuses on understanding how microbes influence global climate via soil respiration and their responses to climate change. Although very busy at Purdue, Salazar has found the time to initiate an international climate change meeting to be held in his home country of Colombia during the fall of 2016.

When discussing climate change, dirt is not typically the first thing that comes to mind. But for Fulbright scholar, Alejandro Salazar-Villegas, soil has been the primary focus of his studies at Purdue University.

“Soil is the most biologically active layer of the planet, it has been globally colonized by the most abundant and diverse life-form on earth: microorganisms” Salazar explains when asked about the importance of studying soil, a seemingly unimportant element to the general public, but really a substantial signifier that can shed light on the coming effects of climate change.

For the past three years, Salazar has been working under Purdue University professor Jeffrey Dukes, leader of the Jeff Duke’s Lab and the Boston Area Climate Experiment (BACE). Salazar, along with his fellow research team members, have been studying how terrestrial ecosystems respond and feed back to climate change. Societies rely on this type of information to prepare for further changes in global and regional climate. Currently, the majority of Salazar’s days are spent analyzing samples from BACE, a long-term climate-change experiment that simulates twelve different climate scenarios in a New England old-field ecosystem. In this experiment, different areas of the same ecosystem have been exposed for several years to different temperature and precipitation regimes using rain-exclusion shelters and ceramic heaters. The warming and precipitation treatments in this experiment were designed based on climate change predictions for this century. Salazar is especially interested in understanding how these treatments are affecting microbes in soil the way they feed back to climate via soil respiration.

“In order to answer questions about climate change on a global scale, collaborations are crucial.  You need to share and compare data from experiments collected in many different sites and under different circumstances.”

Environmental issues have always been of interest to Salazar. Before attending Purdue to pursue his PhD in biological sciences, Salazar studied industrial production of biodegradable polymers (or biopolymers) using microbes at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

“The research that I did before coming to Purdue was similar to the research I’m currently doing in the way that I studied the influence of external, abiotic factors on several microbial processes. However, the focus of my current research is on the production of CO2 (in the context of climate change) rather than on the production of biopolymers” Salazar shares.

Salazar’s passion for science goes beyond just his research studies. Throughout his time at Purdue, Salazar has participated in the Project Interchange, a mentorship collaboration between Purdue and Colombian high schools. Through this project, Salazar helps introduce students from his home country to different types of STEM research, and shows them the opportunities that are available to them when choosing an education in one of the STEM fields.

In addition to the Project Interchange, Salazar is also organizing a three-day climate change meeting to be held this fall in Medellin, Colombia. INTERCAMBIO – International Conference on Atmosphere-Biosphere Interactions, will host speakers from Purdue University, Universidad de Antioquia, Universidad Eafit, the Florida International University, University of Exeter, Universidad del Rosario, and the School of Engineering of Antioquia. One of the main goals of this meeting is to promote scientific discussion and collaborative networking among climate change researchers in Colombia, and foster their interactions with researchers at Purdue University.

“It’s grown to be something much greater than I expected,” Salazar proudly admits. “In order to answer questions about climate change on a global scale, collaborations are crucial.  You need to share and compare data from experiments collected in many different sites and under different circumstances.”

With still a few years left at Purdue University, Salazar has only just begun thinking about his next steps. At the moment, he is very content with his work and his research team. He wants to continue studying climate change after graduation, and plans to continue his research back in Colombia.

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