2018 Charles S. Falkenberg Award Winner
Rebecca B. Neumann received the Charles S. Falkenberg Award at the 2018 AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held 12 December 2018 in Washington, D. C. The award honors “an early- to middle-career scientist who has contributed to the quality of life, economic opportunities, and stewardship of the planet through the use of Earth science information and to the public awareness of the importance of understanding our planet.”
From her early career, Becca has been passionate about combining fieldwork with laboratory analyses, Earth science data, and models to discover insights into large-scale societal problems, such as arsenic contamination of groundwater in Asia, methane emission from peatlands of the Arctic, and food quality challenges in a changing climate. She has always dared to tackle wicked problems by traveling around the world and has put herself in difficult situations.
As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Becca focused on the large-scale problem of arsenic contamination in groundwater in Bangladesh. Her work advanced understanding of how land surface modifications related to water resources management and agricultural development could affect groundwater arsenic concentrations by altering water and carbon fluxes through the soil and aquifer. By focusing on fundamental physical and biogeochemical processes, her research resulted in a number of concrete suggestions for policy makers and land use planners, including approaches for reducing agricultural water use, providing the area with arsenic-free drinking water, and minimizing future arsenic contamination.
After MIT, Becca’s continued work in Bangladesh demonstrated that current irrigation practices can actually result in more methane gas being released into the atmosphere from pumping methane-rich groundwater than what paddy fields normally release through the slower decomposition processes. This archaic irrigation practice by millions of farmers who actually feed nations is in urgent need of improvement to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Becca responded to this need, publishing a study demonstrating that the simple act of sealing the boundaries of rice fields can save a large amount of irrigation water and unnecessary emissions of methane.
In more recent times, Becca has articulated the risk of legacy arsenic in Puget Sound lakes to aquatic ecosystems and human health via fish. She has developed a mechanistic understanding of how arsenic uptake by rice will change with warming temperatures in rice-producing countries. She is also investigating how dam development on the Mekong may alter rice production and grain quality in Tonle Sap Lake of Cambodia. Because of her recognized expertise in these areas, she was asked to review the California Environmental Protection Agency’s draft scientific document titled “Proposed Naturally Occurring Concentrations of Inorganic Arsenic in White and Brown Rice” in 2017. A little farther north of her workplace in Seattle, Becca has been engaged in fieldwork in the Arctic to understand how warming may change greenhouse gas concentrations as permafrost melts.
I am thrilled that AGU has bestowed on Becca the Falkenberg Award for 2018.
—Faisal Hossain, University of Washington, Seattle
I entered environmental research because I wanted to protect human and environmental health globally, and I believed that through research I could generate the knowledge and understanding needed to create sound policy and management strategies. While I feel that there is always more to achieve, receiving the Charles S. Falkenberg Award is recognition that my work so far has had a positive impact and, quoting the award criteria, “contributed to the quality of life, economic opportunities, and stewardship of the planet.” I feel fortunate to have a career that gives me the freedom to pursue these ideals, tackling societally relevant problems in a multifaceted and cross-disciplinary way.
I want to thank Faisal Hossain for recognizing the impact of my efforts and nominating me for the award. I am awed by his apparently bottomless reservoir of energy and encouragement. I am also grateful to those who, in addition to supporting my nomination, have mentored and guided me in my research career: Charles Harvey, Zoe Cardon, Borhan Badruzzaman, Roger Beckie, and Jim Gawel. Acknowledgment is also due AGU, the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) federation, and the Falkenberg Award review committee.
I did not know Charles Falkenberg, but from his legacy it is clear that he was committed to involving the public in Earth science. Moving scientific knowledge beyond the ivory tower is a difficult and daunting task, but it is an important endeavor. I am energized by recent efforts of AGU, my home institution (University of Washington), and other organizations to provide scientists with the communication and networking skills needed to make their science actionable. I am actively taking advantage of these opportunities and building skills to better realize my goal of translating research results into policy and management strategies that protect human and environmental health. I am optimistic that as a scientific community, we will only get more proficient at navigating the science–public interface. At the University of Washington, I am surrounded by energetic undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers who are truly motivated to make positive change in the world and already have the soft skills needed to engage the public, policy makers, and journalists.
It is an honor to be part of Charles Falkenberg’s legacy. I am inspired to continue moving the findings of my own research program into the public and policy spheres and supporting others with this important undertaking.
—Rebecca B. Neumann, Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle