John Harrison: Environmental Science

John Harrison accomplished three goals during his leave: make headway on current research projects, develop new avenues of inquiry and help put on a joint meeting of four leading aquatic science societies.

“It was a productive year,” he said. Harrison, associate professor in the School of the Environment, manages seven externally funded research projects exploring the increasing environmental impact of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, mostly resulting from human activities. In terms of his first goal, he received a new NSF grant, hired a new postdoc, saw seven papers published or in press, and wrote two additional papers and a peer-reviewed report.

The second goal—to develop new ways of looking at his major research questions—was just as fruitful. “I anticipate mining this experience for proposals and paper ideas for years,” Harrison said.harrison_headshot

For six months Harrison and family were based in the Netherlands at Utrecht University, focusing on a major global change—the acceleration of the nitrogen cycle. With colleagues there, he developed three new avenues of inquiry: a global coastal nitrogen budget (sources of nitrogen and how much there is), coastal effects modeling (effects of nitrogen from various activities on coastal environments) and integrated assessment modeling (an approach to understand the trajectories of change).

“To do something about problems documented as increasing on a global scale, we need to know where the nitrogen is coming from,” he said. “By comparing the relative importance of nitrogen from the ocean versus from land, we can estimate the human effect of nitrogen loading in the coastal zone and develop effective strategies to do something about it.”

Integrated assessment modeling was developed by European scientists. Harrison’s lab is now using this approach in collaboration with WSU-based colleagues to model water availability and water quality as a function of land-use change and climate change along the Columbia River in coming decades.

As for the Joint Aquatic Sciences meeting, which was held in Portland, it was the biggest freshwater science meeting ever, with participation of scientists from all over the world. It was inspiring and a source of numerous contacts and potential collaborations.

While Harrison’s research has clear value to WSU’s capacity to do global-scale environmental analysis, it also has value to his teaching. “In addition to giving me some time to stand back and think about the craft of teaching and see how other people do it, it gave me time to develop my own research in ways that feed back naturally to teaching. It also gave me some great stories to share,” he said.

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