Lab Manager Rachel Van Allen is a sustainability research jack-of-all-trades — a water specialist working in a soils lab, the go-to person for help in Wendy Yang’s CABBI Sustainability group, and even a resident expert on quantum cascade lasers.

This Minnesota native is applying her diverse skills to support researchers probing the sustainability of bioenergy crops.

Growing up in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, Van Allen was always drawn to environmental sciences. Her family road-tripped and car-camped to a variety of cherished destinations like Yellowstone and the Canadian Rockies, helping a young Rachel develop her keen relationship with ecology.

“My parents really fostered my interest in science and nature,” she said.

Van Allen carried these special memories with her through her undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities studying Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior. She went on to get a master’s degree in Water Resources Science from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. There, Van Allen spent countless hours working at the Large Lakes Observatory, a renowned research facility.

In Yang’s lab at the University of Illinois, however, Van Allen has shifted her focus to the terra firma: “In my educational background, I was always more interested in lakes, wetlands, and aquatic systems, so it’s interesting to be here in a soils lab. Like most ecologists, I didn’t sign up to be an analytical chemist, but that’s a part of the research that I really enjoy now,” she said.

Above: Van Allen works on the laser in Wendy Yang’s lab. Top: Van Allen visits the Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois.

Yang and Van Allen began working together before CABBI existed. She joined the Yang lab because of her interest in biogeochemistry, particularly the stable isotope methods used by researchers in the group. Stable isotopes are a powerful tool for tracking the movement of carbon and nitrogen through the environment — from the shift in vegetation in a marsh due to sea-level rise, which she studied for her master’s thesis, to soil nitrogen transformations in bioenergy cropping systems.

Once CABBI launched in 2017, Van Allen was already on board.

“It’s been cool to see the intention that went into planning CABBI from the beginning, and the way that collaborations among themes and between institutions have taken off,” she said. “I’m proud that I’ve helped lay the groundwork for such a vibrant research community.”

In the lab, Van Allen splits her time assisting researchers with their projects, pursuing some of her own research topics, and processing lots of soil samples. Van Allen fully runs the U of I’s stable isotope facility, which includes an isotope ratio mass spectrometer and all the equipment associated with it.

This Aerodyne laser spectrometer uses a quantum cascade laser to emit infrared light, which is absorbed differently by forms of nitrous oxide with varied arrangements of stable isotopes within the molecule, also known as isotopomers. In the context of soil science, this gives more detailed isotopic information about the microbes that participate in the nitrogen cycle as they leave “isotopic signatures of their processes.”

The laser can track nitrogen-cycling processes, and the ultimate goal of this research is to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural soils. Van Allen’s work is key in forging a sustainable future: A more holistic view of the complex nitrogen cycle will shed light on the sustainability of bioenergy cropping systems and other agro-ecosystems.

“The laser gives isotopic insight into which microbes in the soil are contributing more to nitrous oxide emissions. This will potentially address a big gap in our understanding of greenhouse gas emissions from bioenergy crops and agricultural soils,” she said.

Van Allen spends lots of time with her three cats — Luna, left, and at right, Willie Nelson (front) and Oscar (back). All credits: Rachel Van Allen

Most importantly, Van Allen is the backbone of Yang’s lab, helping train new scientists on analytical equipment, getting new projects off the ground, redesigning methodologies, and generally providing assistance both in the lab and field. In a lab that is pioneering sustainability, her research expertise is essential.

“That is a challenging part of cutting-edge work: There are a lot of hurdles and challenges that everyone is working on simultaneously and so many things to figure out because nobody’s figured them out before,” she said.

CABBI’s heavily collaborative nature helps confront these challenges in novel and effective ways: “We have so many different people from different fields with a variety of perspectives on the same system. For example, a chemist is going to think about bioenergy cropping systems differently than a plant geneticist, and a soil ecologist is going to think about them differently than an economic modeler,” Van Allen said.

Moving forward, she would like to integrate what she’s learned at CABBI with her Water Resources degree, working to improve water quality and fight for environmental justice — a pressing issue.

She is grateful for the inspiration and wisdom of other women in STEM and sustainability: Yang, Sarah Hobbie at the University of Minnesota, and her master’s adviser Katie Schreiner, as well as two ground-breaking role models — renowned Ojibwe environmental activist Winona LaDuke and Silent Spring author Rachel Carson. With that motivation, Van Allen hopes to contribute to a greener and more equitable future.

— Article by CABBI Communications Intern Maria Maring