“Science is the endeavor of creating new knowledge... It’s like walking on the moon — going somewhere no one else has ever been before.”
Stroud™ Scientists at Work
From Dreams to Reality: Anthony Aufdenkampe Tackles Earth Sciences’ Technology Landscape
The Adventure Begins
There are those who dream and those who live the dream. Anthony Aufdenkampe is both. Whether he’s scaling an icy cliff, trotting the globe in pursuit of scientific discovery, or turning one-size-fits-few technology on its head, he doesn’t back down from a challenge. In fact, try telling him something is impossible, and you might just see a twinkle in his eye. For him, it’s an adventure, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
“Science is the endeavor of creating new knowledge. When you boil it down to that, it’s really exciting. It’s like walking on the moon — going somewhere no one else has ever been before,” he says.
Even as a child, he was drawn to the unknown and the outdoors. At the age of 8, he braved a transatlantic flight by himself en route to visit his grandparents, and growing up, he spent summers and weekends backpacking, canoeing, hiking, and camping with his family. Nature was his playground. As for his lasting love of rivers and oceans, those mysterious underwater worlds teeming with life, he credits first his boyhood hero. “I was really taken by Jacques Cousteau. I loved everything that had to do with oceans and water. I still do.”
By the time he graduated from Dartmouth College, he had become an accomplished whitewater kayaker, even leading expeditionary trips all over the East Coast. Rivers became his second home. He found them beautiful, dangerous, and good for a sweet ride. He was hooked. But he also wanted to understand the flows of energy and nutrients that sustained them. That desire led him on an educational journey to study freshwater ecosystems in Bolivia’s Beni River, Peru’s Ucayali River, Papua New Guinea’s Fly River, Africa’s Congo River, and the world’s largest river — the Amazon.
He matured as a scientist as the field of biogeochemistry was emerging, and he readily adapted his training in chemistry as a tool to understand how biology, geology, and hydrology interact on the earth’s surface. He believes that great ideas can come from unexpected places, and sometimes that means carving a new path to reach a better understanding of life on Earth. One such path: cutting-edge technology.
Since joining Stroud™ Water Research Center in 2003, Aufdenkampe’s imagination and thirst for adventure have helped catapult the Center into using, mastering, and customizing new technologies — technologies that will enable scientists to make new discoveries.
“Science advances by figuring out clever ways to answer questions someone else couldn’t answer in the past, and there are just certain questions you can’t answer without new technology.” That’s why when Aufdenkampe joined the Center’s team of scientists, he set out to secure its most sophisticated piece of equipment to date: an isotope ratio mass spectrometer (IRMS).
The instrument is used to measure stable isotopes in carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur. By looking at the ratio of different isotopes in freshwater ecosystems, for example, scientists can tell where the energy in a stream comes from.
“Is the carbon in a stream coming primarily from plants like algae growing in the stream or from trees and grasses that grow along the stream bank?” he asks. “Determining whether energy and food sources are aquatic or terrestrial in origin has been one of the big questions in stream ecology for a long time, and it’s a pretty hard one to answer. But it is important in evaluating the long-term effectiveness of stream restoration projects.”
Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program, the Center will soon have a new and even more powerful IRMS. For the first time, Center scientists will have the ability to measure isotopes in all of the major gases in the atmosphere simultaneously. It’s the latest generation, it’s much more sensitive, and it has a higher throughput — and Aufdenkampe already has plans for its use.
Welcome to the Future
For one, it will prove helpful in studying one of nature’s methods for managing nutrients from fertilizers and waste treatment facilities that work their way into estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay. Denitrification is a process where microbes use nitrogen instead of oxygen to survive, but it only works when no oxygen is available. Scientists don’t know how much denitrification occurs in streams and rivers, but IRMS technology will come in handy as Aufdenkampe and his colleagues attempt to demystify the process.
“If we can do that, we might be able to further encourage that process and restore dead zones in our waterways.”
He adds, “We have also developed a method to make all of the gases show up in their purified forms from a single water sample, so with this new instrument, we will be able to gather more precise data with less legwork.”
As technology evolves, so does science. But with more measurements, and more precise ones at that, comes the need to manage that data. Aufdenkampe believes the answer lies in cyberinfrastructure. An accessible, easy-to-navigate virtual realm that makes massive amounts of data available to millions of users is no longer science fiction. It’s Google. It’s also the future of real science.
“The problem is that Earth’s surface scientists, including ecologists, are only beginning to harness the new ‘big data’ technologies developed by Google and others. Web 2.0 is built on the idea of putting lots of data at our fingertips. We need to be able to take our measurements and put them into some kind of Google-like sphere of information.”
So Aufdenkampe is working within the national Critical Zone Observatories (CZO) program to oversee the development of a cyberinfrastructure model to manage data.
Turning innovative ideas like that into real solutions has earned Aufdenkampe recognition within the CZO community and also at Stroud Water Research Center. In 2011 he was promoted from assistant- to associate-level research scientist. (The Center has adopted the academic model for promotions, and in academia, that’s no small jump, as it involves a thorough internal and external review.)
His belief that anything is possible resonates well in a world facing challenges such as climate change and competition for natural resources, and it’s one that another scientist and dreamer shared: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — Albert Einstein