Texas Tech University

Nick Smith Seeks to Better Understand How Plants Respond to Global Change

Glenys Young

April 15, 2021

The biologist has received a five-year, $1.1 million CAREER grant.

Today, greenhouse gases are practically synonymous with climate change. Scientists have recognized for centuries that these gases in Earth's atmosphere trap heat, keeping the planet warm enough for life. It's called the “greenhouse effect,” because the Earth essentially becomes a greenhouse – like one you might have in your own backyard.

In order to flourish, all plants within a greenhouse must be able to live under those conditions. But, what happens if the conditions in the greenhouse change?

Nick Smith
Nick Smith

That's what Nick Smith, an assistant professor in Texas Tech University's Department of Biological Sciences, is looking to answer. Nearly a decade ago, Smith began investigating how plants react to anthropogenic global changes – and one thing became obvious.

“It was clear we didn't have a firm enough understanding of the capacity for plants to acclimate to new conditions in order to reliably predict how plants will respond to the novel conditions humans are imposing on them,” said Smith, head of the Plant Ecophysiology Lab. “Since then, I've been trying to come up with ways to better our understanding.”

Now, with the help of a five-year, $1,142,853 grant from the National Science Foundation's (NSF)Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER), Smith will dive into a much larger analysis to determine how plants acclimate to a changing environment. The project will examine multiple aspects of anthropogenic global change, which includes climate change, but also other drivers such as elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide and nitrogen deposition.

“Land plants regulate the largest transfer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the Earth's surface through the process of photosynthesis,” Smith said. “Because carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere is the primary driver of ongoing climate change, it is critical to understand how plants, and photosynthesis in particular, will respond to future conditions, as these responses will dictate the rate and magnitude of future climate change.”

Smith said most climate models currently include simplistic representations of plants, despite their obvious sensitivity to plant processes. As such, his research will merge theory development, manipulative experiments, observational data and modeling to get a more holistic understanding of how plants acclimate to global change.

“By combining theory with data,” he notes, “we will be able to come up with a robust model for these responses at the individual plant level, which we can then incorporate into increasingly larger-scale models. This will allow us to see how our improved understanding impacts ecosystem and global-scale processes, including the rate and trajectory of climate change.”

The CAREER grant is the NSF's most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research. As such, while Smith is excited about being able to do the research, he's even more enthusiastic about getting his students involved.

“I am very excited to integrate my teaching with my research,” he said. “Many biology students only get a limited exposure to botany and, as result, don't develop a strong appreciation for the importance of plants in their daily lives. They also rarely get a chance to take part in cutting-edge research. This project will bring students directly into my lab, giving them the skills to do real science. Hopefully, they will gain an appreciation for plants along the way.

“I can't wait to get started!”