Looking for Answers as the Climate Changes
Vikki Rodgers examines the planet’s uncertain future. In the classroom, her students give her hope.
By John Crawford
Photo: Webb Chappell
Sometimes, science is tedious. In a recent experiment, ecologist Vikki Rodgers had to count the leaves on 864 tree seedlings. Twice. Armed with a hand counter, she and a student would check a leaf and click, then another leaf and click, and on and on, the counter clicking away. “You can grow a little crazy after a while,” admits the assistant professor of environmental science.
That monotonous counting, though, had a serious purpose. At the Boston Area Climate Experiment, an ecological research site in Waltham, Mass., the plants were exposed to different levels of precipitation and temperature designed to mimic potential weather patterns brought on by climate change in the future. As she painstakingly counted and measured those leaves to gauge the health of the plants, Rodgers was hoping to understand, at least in a small way, how the gravest threat the earth faces today will affect life as we know it. “Climate change is going to have huge implications,” Rodgers says, “most of which we can’t even wrap our heads around at this point.”
Since she was young, Rodgers has had an interest in the natural world and its delicate beauty. Her family hiked New Hampshire’s White Mountains and rented a cabin in Maine, and her parents preached the importance of conserving, not wasting. After eating at a restaurant in England that kept live chickens in cages, she became a vegetarian at the age of 13 and remained one for years until she became pregnant with her son. In junior high and high school, she had great science teachers who inspired her.
I love being outdoors. I have a vegetable garden in the summer, and I have my kids help me. I think it’s important that they see where food comes from.
Favorite TV Shows
Louie. Modern Family. 30 Rock. The Walking Dead—my husband and I have a Sunday night date to watch it.
Favorite Spot on Campus
In the spring, in the area behind Horn and Babson Hall, there are cherry trees in blossom. They have beautiful pink flowers.
Something Students Don’t Know About You
I did ballet for 10 years when I was young. I am one of the clumsiest people you’ll ever meet.
Her career path became clear when she took an ecology course as an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire. “I was hooked,” Rodgers says. “Having a job that would allow me to be outside was exactly what I wanted.” She then earned her PhD in forest ecology and biogeochemistry from Boston University. In 2007, she came to Babson, where she teaches a variety of environmental courses, including “Environmental Technology,” “Biodiversity and the Environment,” and “Economic Botany,” which looks at how people use plants for food, medicine, and materials. This course also requires students to explore the campus and identify 10 species of trees out of the 30 or more that grow on the grounds. Rodgers believes students should take a moment to appreciate life’s diversity. “I think it’s important to be aware of what’s around us,” she says.
In her research, Rodgers is interested in the many ways that humans alter the environment, such as when land use changes from farms to suburban communities or when invasive species brought from faraway places spread and cause havoc in an ecosystem. Such research makes one realize how fragile nature can be, Rodgers says. In an ecosystem, all the species operate together, impacting each other, in a series of interactions and connections built up through millions of years of evolution. If something adverse happens to just some of those species, the bonds break down and the natural balance changes. “You create a whole collapse of the system,” she says. “It is a very complicated, interconnected web.”
In no bigger way are humans impacting the planet than climate change. At the Boston Area Climate Experiment, Rodgers and other researchers have divided the site into 36 small plots, each 2 meters by 2 meters, that are filled with different plants. Using infrared heaters and water collectors and sprinklers, they expose each plot to varying conditions. The temperature increases, up to 4 degrees Celsius, may seem slight, but the changes are more than enough to have repercussions. While some plants can survive, others can’t, especially when drought conditions are added to the high temperatures. In the tree seedling experiment, Rodgers examined six species native to New England, and the heat and dryness devastated many of the trees. She predicts that the makeup of the region’s forests could change dramatically in the future.
Despite the many alarming projections about climate change, from sea levels rising to droughts increasing to storms growing more severe, Rodgers is frustrated that America’s leaders hesitate to focus on the issue. “It’s all wrapped up in the politics,” she says. “In the scientific community, there is no debate.”
Still, she remains optimistic about the future because of her students. They have grown up hearing about climate change and realize what’s at stake. “It’s going to be tough, but there is hope,” Rodgers says. “I see students are excited and want to make change.” She believes they’ll be poised to take action in the business world. Pursuing renewable energy, controlling pollution, and reusing waste are some of the opportunities businesses can embrace to address climate change. “People are looking to the business community to be leaders,” she says. “I put it on them to be part of the solution.”