Tara Hudiburg and her team of scientists are the behind-the-scenes heroes who ensure CABBI’s research solutions perform in the real world.

The Hudiburg Lab of CABBI’s Sustainability theme is located in Idaho, so the team does not participate in any CABBI field locations. Rather, they work remotely, using CABBI data in complex process-based models. Do not let their faraway home discredit their work, though; the team’s ecosystem modeling work is essential to the future of bioenergy crops.

“Our biggest challenge has probably been people forget about us,” Hudiburg said. “We’re not part of any CABBI field locations — obviously, we live in Idaho. On CABBI, we are 100 percent on a computer.”

ABOVE: Tara Hudiburg doing fieldwork up a tree. TOP: Danielle Berardi, Jeff Kent, and Hudiburg on a snowy trail.

Hudiburg grew up in Washington state, very near Olympic National Park, where her love for the natural world was born. She studied biology for her undergraduate degree at Pacific Lutheran University, then received an M.S. and Ph.D. in forest science at Oregon State University. Hudiburg is now Associate Professor of Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences at the University of Idaho.

Danielle Berardi, raised in the Portland, Ore., area, also developed a deep passion for the outdoors early on. She studied restoration ecology for her undergraduate degree at the University of Montana. She went on to earn her master’s degree at the University of Idaho working on soil respiration and forest systems. Now, Berardi is an Ecology Ph.D. candidate at Idaho.

Jeff Kent, Hudiburg’s postdoc, has bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry from the University of South Carolina. He studied ecology as a graduate student at Colorado State before arriving at Idaho.

In their free time, all three scientists are self-proclaimed adventurists, dabbling in hiking, skiing, running, climbing, elk hunting, biking, and even backcountry rescue. Kent has backpacked portions of the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.

Hudiburg, Berardi, and Kent have worked together since CABBI’s inception in 2017. They use an ecosystem modeling program called DayCent to create a “profile” of plant growth and soil dynamics in agricultural areas. Using the data sent to them from other CABBI researchers across the country, they parameterize and validate model simulations, as well as evaluate model development needs. They simulate water, carbon, nitrogen, and other important indicators to better understand how different management styles affect soil quality and carbon sequestration abilities. These styles include what fertilizer is implemented, how much is used, and even which bioenergy crops are planted. Bioenergy crops are those used to produce energy products traditionally forged from fossil fuels, like diesel.

The results of the Hudiburg Lab’s modeling can help determine factors like the profitability of different crops in different locations and, most importantly, best practices for greenhouse gas mitigation. The overarching goal of the Sustainability theme is to shift the bioeconomy toward crops and practices with positive environmental and economic impacts.

Kent with a fungal find.

“(Our research) is evaluating greenhouse gas mitigation potential of bioenergy crops. And not just the crop itself, but the management practices that are used to cultivate and use it,” Hudiburg said.

One of the goals of the Hudiburg Lab is to ensure that agricultural climate change solutions are actually effective since some speculated solutions add emissions to the atmosphere instead of mitigating them.

“If you don’t have correct and unbiased accounting with scientifically, rigorously evaluated models with some uncertainty estimates, then you run the danger of implementing practices that will make emissions worse,” Hudiburg said.

By creating detailed, true-to-life models, Hudiburg and her team can ensure that CABBI stays on track with its overarching mission: to ensure the success of bioproducts both environmentally and economically. If one or the other falters, the balance of holistic sustainability is no longer feasible.

“I believe that is what our mission as the Sustainability theme of CABBI is: to make sure that whatever energy solution we provide, it is not carbon positive to the atmosphere. There’s a lot of solutions that aren’t going to help,” Hudiburg said.

Although the Hudiburg Lab is far away from the Urbana-Champaign campus, their work is essential to the success of CABBI – just as teamwork is essential to the success of CABBI.

“We wouldn’t be able to do our work as the Sustainability theme by ourselves because we can’t develop these crops, we can’t do the genetic modifications, we can’t even grow them: We’re on computers!” Hudiburg said.“The most important part of being on the CABBI team is that there are different themes, that we have very different science questions, but that the mission as a whole is to provide a holistic view — which is good for the environment and sustainability.”

— Article by iSEE Communications Intern Maria Maring; photos courtesy of the Hudiburg Lab