Dr. Elizabeth Webb is an ecologist studying climate change in the Arctic, a longtime science educator, and an alumna of the SNRE’s PhD program in Interdisciplinary Ecology. She completed her PhD in spring 2022 and is now a postdoctoral researcher in the Lichstein Lab in the Biology Department at UF. Many of our undergraduate students may recognize Dr. Webb from her class, Introduction to Environmental Science (EVR2001), which is offered every semester.
The course of Dr. Webb’s doctoral research took a couple unanticipated turns after she was awarded a NASA fellowship – she pivoted from her original focus on boreal forests to explore as-yet unasked questions about Arctic lakes. We spoke to Dr. Webb about her experience in SNRE, her dissertation – which includes the stunning finding that Arctic lakes are drying up due to climate change – and her research interests as a postdoc.
What made you decide to pursue your PhD in Interdisciplinary Ecology at SNRE?
My work is interdisciplinary by nature; I draw on knowledge and tools from geography, soil and water science, forestry, biology, and earth science, among others. Being housed in SNRE was a good fit for my research interests and allowed me the flexibility to count classes from across disciplines towards my degree.
Tell us about your doctoral research. You were originally interested in Arctic albedo (the term “albedo” refers to surface reflectivity), which led to your finding that Arctic lakes are vanishing as the permafrost below them thaws. Did you mean to examine lake decline when you embarked on your doctoral research?
I am interested in the feedbacks between ecosystems and climate change in the Arctic/Boreal region. Originally, the plan was to work with my advisor, Jeremy Lichstein, on an NSF-funded project studying forest recovery after fire in Siberian larch forests. However, I was awarded a NASA graduate student fellowship to study the drivers of albedo change in the Arctic, so I pivoted to work on that. A key finding from the albedo work is that changes in surface water play an important yet previously unappreciated role in albedo change. This led me to the question – why is surface water changing? I was not able to find the answer in the literature, so I set out to answer the question myself! The second and third chapters of my dissertation focus on lake area change and surface water change across the Arctic and point to permafrost thaw as a reason for surface water decline. But I am still interested in the questions about fire in Siberian larch forests, so now as a postdoc, I am working on the project I had originally planned on tackling during my PhD.
How do you imagine future research will build on your work?
The fact that surface water is declining across the Arctic opens up lots of new questions like: Where is the water going? What does a draining landscape mean for the carbon balance of these ecosystems? I hope to answer some of these questions in future work.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently as a PhD student, knowing what you know now?
Oooof. I don’t think so! I had a lot of support from my advisor and my peers, which helped me make good decisions along the way. Some advice I would give to others is:
- Write a grant proposal early in your graduate studies. This will force you to hone your questions and will be a great reference to come back to when it feels like nothing makes sense and you’ve lost your anchor.
- Build the skills you need to succeed early – learn a new programming language, take the statistics classes, etc.
- See if you can make one of your chapters into a review paper. It takes so long to get up to speed with the literature; you might as well put all your efforts reading papers into a manuscript! This will help others down the line understand the field.
- Make professional connections outside of your advisor’s network – this will set you up for lots of support and collaborations down the line.
Tell us a little about the research you’re doing now as a postdoc in the Lichstein Lab.
Fire is the dominant disturbance in the boreal forests, and with climate change, fires are expected to increase in frequency, severity, and size. My postdoctoral work is focused on quantifying post-fire tree mortality across Siberian larch forests and documenting how tree mortality rates are changing with climate-driven intensified fire regimes.
What previous career experiences prepared you for your PhD program and for the work you’re doing now?
Before my PhD, I worked as a research coordinator at the National High Magnetic Field Lab at UF. In this capacity, I did a lot of classroom outreach to K-8 students in Alachua County Public Schools. This allowed me to hone my science communication skills. I also managed the administrative aspect of grant submissions, which was really helpful in understanding the process when I submitted my own fellowship application.