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The climate superhero

WVU biology student wins NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

At an early age, Joanna Ridgeway decided to become a scientist. She spent the majority of her childhood playing outdoors in her Ridgeway, West Virginia, backyard and exploring the vast wilderness of the surrounding Appalachian Mountains. 

When the now- West Virginia University biology graduate student first learned the natural world was in peril due to climate change, she was angry.

“Fortunately, the messages about climate change were tempered with optimism that scientists could help reverse this damage,” Ridgeway said. “My goal was to become one of those superheroes.”

But that goal was not without its own obstacles.

“Exploring the many corners of my beautiful home state with its staggering vistas and rushing streams reinforced my passion for environmental conservation,” Ridgeway said.

“My parents and teachers taught me to love learning and to think more deeply about the world around me. However, until in high school I didn’t know any scientists personally – let alone any who were women. Being a scientist seemed as unattainable to me as being a rock star.”

That all changed when she competed in the state science fair during her senior year, which helped her recognize the possibility of a research career.  

“At the state science fair, I was judged by two young female engineers from the Department of Energy. They told me about their research labs, cool projects they worked on and career opportunities, especially for women scientists and engineers,” Ridgeway said. “This experience led me to pursue an environmental engineering degree at WVU and started my path toward my doctoral research.”  

Today, Ridgeway is the recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship, a prestigious and competitive award that will fund her graduate study for three years. She is researching how a sustainable bioenergy economy can contribute to greenhouse gas reductions. 

“As I progress to becoming an independent research scientist, I remain committed to using science as a tool to combat climate change,” Ridgeway said. “The degree to which soil either stores or releases carbon has a direct influence on the sustainability of the bioenergy industry and its potential to contribute to a carbon-neutral energy economy. I am investigating how interactions between bioenergy crops and their soil microbes affect the formation and retention of carbon in soil.”

Her work will help inform an environmental model to improve predictions of bioenergy sustainability.

“Joanna’s engineering background gives her a unique perspective on climate change science. She is not solely interested in documenting that there is a problem. Instead, she is actively searching for creative solutions,” said Assistant Professor of Biology Eddie Brzostek, Ridgeway’s adviser. “Joanna’s research reflects this perspective because it could allow farmers to get more bang for their buck by putting carbon in soils at the same time they are producing biofuels.”

As her project progresses, she plans to partner with WVU Extension Service to share her findings with local landowners.  

“I think it is important to communicate scientific findings back to the public, especially when working in a field that deals in environmental changes that directly affect humans,” Ridgeway said. “As the U.S. demands for bioenergy increase, we are likely to see more and more crops for biofuel production make their way to West Virginia. My work may allow me to help farmers choose crops and management strategies that can be both economically and environmentally optimal. I would love to see West Virginia's economy continue to include more renewable energies.”

Ridgeway is also committed to encouraging future scientists through education and outreach.

“I hope to help introduce students to scientists, engineers and other STEM professionals to help them recognize these as feasible career options. For most of my childhood I didn't really think that any of the many careers I know of today actually existed,” Ridgeway said. “Trying to accomplish this in West Virginia is especially important to me because I believe that students in this state have a really strong potential for success in STEM fields, but the rate of students graduating high school and going on to pursue these degrees and careers is relatively low. While there are economic barriers, there are also lots of places, especially WVU, with many funding opportunities to make it feasible.” 

Pictured at top of page: Joanna Ridgeway poses behind incubation jars in Ember Morrisey's lab in the South Agricultural Sciences Building in November 2019.