From deserts to ice sheets to outer space, Desert Research Institute has outgrown its name

Desert Research Institute president Stephen Wells discusses our biggest environmental challenges

Dr. Stephen Wells, president of Desert Research Institute, stands in front of an Ecocell full of Oklahoma prairie vegetation. The research, which involves the effects of climate change, is featured on the September 2008 cover of the journal Nature.

Dr. Stephen Wells, president of Desert Research Institute, stands in front of an Ecocell full of Oklahoma prairie vegetation. The research, which involves the effects of climate change, is featured on the September 2008 cover of the journal Nature.

Photo by kat kerlin

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Dr. Stephen Wells, president of Desert Research Institute, was honored with a Golden Pinecone Award by Nevada EcoNet this week. Other recipients include Leslie Allen of the UNR Cooperative Extension, Kyle Davis with the Nevada Conservation League, AT&T Yellow Pages, and nonprofit Black Rock Solar.

Before the awards ceremony, Wells sat with RN&R to discuss how an institute with “Desert” in its name is exploring Oklahoma prairie lands and ice cores in Greenland, as well as the challenges we face as a planet.

RN&R: Congratulations on the award. Why do you think you’re getting it?

Dr. Wells: I don’t have the slightest idea. I think probably the reason I’m receiving it is I’m lucky enough to be president of an institution with such great people doing remarkable things for the environment. So it’s just by luck. I’ve got a little bit of Irish in me, so “green” awards—green-Irish. To me, it’s been an honor to serve as president of DRI; it’s been almost 10 years now, and leading people that are making remarkable contributions that are making the environment a better place, not only here in Nevada but around the world. So I guess the answer is luck.

A lot of what you do seems to involve climate change and water, how do you decide what to focus on. Do you choose or how does it work?

Well no, actually, the president and the president’s administrative staff can help open doors, facilitate the research that the faculty does, make sure it’s the best research process to get grants, be successful and to get the best products that come out, in terms of publications. But the beauty of DRI, under the general mission of environmental sciences, is we bring the best minds in here and ask, ‘well, what’s your dream? What do you want to do?” So we try to do everything we can to help them fulfill their dreams, and their dreams are not only doing really innovative science, but also doing something that helps humanity. So our role is not to tell people what to do, but to discuss the kinds of problems we have out there, help them make connections both nationally and internationally, and facilitate their research. And occasionally there are opportunities with the international universities or organizations that require the leadership to go and build those bridges, which we do with concurrence of the faculty. We need to make sure they want to do that research, so we help facilitate that process, as well.

Most people know Desert Research Institute is here, but I don’t think everyone realized the breadth of your research—that you’re studying Walker Lake but also Antarctica, for example.

The name is interesting. We grew formally 50 years ago from a desert home doing desert research. But now our desert home is working on all kinds of environmental problems. This is a real interesting time for environmental problems because, first of all, I don’t think ever in the history of the earth have some of the challenges we’re facing now been as profound … and never before in the history of humanity have people, from all levels, understood this. It’s pretty remarkable. So the problems and the acute awareness of them make this a really interesting time for an institution going into its 50th anniversary, and in that 50th anniversary, we celebrate research that—it’s hard to encapsulate it in a few key points, but I’ll try to give you some of the remarkable diversity: We have people who look at the impact of nuclear tests, which the history of Nevada has been nuclear tests—we’ve been ground zero for that—and they try to understand the migration of radionucleides and what that means for the water resources in the state of Nevada. We have people who’ve done remarkable ground testing and modeling of that.

Some of the more recent types of activities we’ve been doing—assembling a team of biologists, microbiologists and ecologists to look at life in the extreme environments, from the coldest parts of the polar regions to the hottest parts of the Earth’s systems: deep sea vents where waters come out related to volcanic activity. The commonality there is what kind of microbes live in those environments, were they similar, and if they are similar, what does that mean for life in general and how it might not only exist here on Earth but also on other planets. So our work takes us actually beyond our planetary boundaries to life on other planets and other moons. So that gives you that remarkable range we have. We do everything from understanding how cloud seeding can help bring water resources to the state … to potentially understanding the relationship of pollution—small particles in the air and how that might actually end up reducing precipitation because it changes how individual raindrops accumulate and ultimately make it to the Earth’s surface.

We have the range of understanding how air pollution impacts human health here in the state, particularly in Clark County and Las Vegas, to how air quality impacts the terra cotta soldiers—the 2,000 year-old clay soldiers in China and how it’s helping to degrade those. So the direct application is not only to human health but also to cultural preservation.

We do work at looking at how algae exists in streams and the impacts of the algae on the health of the ecosystem, all the way to looking at how the entire watershed works, whether it’s the Walker River watershed or the Lake Tahoe watershed. … So we can provide data so decision makers can make more informed decisions about the future and what they need to do to protect our water resources or our ecology. That gives you the great sort of scale we have here.

On the climate front, we look at everything from the impact of the climate on the growing season of Oklahoma prairie vegetation. We have large pods of soil actually taken out of an Oklahoma prairie. … We brought them here and put them in our lab and looked at what climate change would do to the growing season of one of the largest ecosystems in North America. So we have that to people looking at the how climate change will impact people living in desert regions, not only here in the United States, but also in the Middle East, in terms of desertification and looking at alternate futures and planning. Does that give you an idea? That really is the tip of the iceberg for this institution—tremendous range and depth and innovation.

Looking at this range, what do you think is the biggest environmental challenge we face?

It’s connected. I think the biggest challenge the world faces is a very small amount of fresh water. You can sort of wear a mask and perhaps survive polluted air. But if you run out fresh water, you can’t survive. So it’s the fundamental building block for life on Earth, and I think we have a crisis of fresh water and water resources that’s being impacted by climate change. A lot of areas are predicting droughts in the future in areas you wouldn’t think about. We saw that last December in Georgia, Florida and the Carolina area … So I think there’s an effort we need to put in and actually have a global awareness of how little water we have and how precious it is and how everyone has a stake in that around the world. You and I can turn on the tap and get fresh water coming out of that tap, but there are people in Africa and the Middle East who live off water that looks like a chocolate milkshake because it’s filled with sediment, and that’s all they have. So we have water quality and water availability as real challenges, and climate change is part of that picture.

DRI is well-respected around the world. What are some of the challenges of keeping it that way?

The biggest challenge is not to lose your talent. Keeping that talent here requires you to have a pretty positive attitude that even in the hardest times, there’s a light down the road. I think our whole nation actually faces that. … So as a leader, I have to deal with those kinds budget issues and make sure that I don’t do anything to impact their success as faculty members—their success in writing the best proposals, bringing the grants in, stewarding those grants, living up to the compliance issues and publishing the results. That’s our business, that’s what we’re successful for, that’s our reputation. So we do everything we can to protect that as much as possible.

Ultimately, if the budget cuts get really bad, and we start impacting those individuals, I’ll just remind everyone that for every dollar the state gives us, we bring in $4, so every dollar you take away, the state loses $4. It’s a pretty simple equation. So you can set up a negative effect with the state finances as well by decreasing our funding. So there’s a benefit to the state, and there’s a benefit to the institution to keep that talent here. So our goal is to keep the talent functioning.

How much have you had to cut from the budget?

We’ve already trimmed back a little over 8.5 percent for the past fiscal year and the current fiscal year, and there are discussions of more cuts this year and the next biennium. … We hope that we don’t’ have to cut at all and survive these difficult times.

How did you get started in the sciences?

My focus has always been on understanding the impacts of climate change in the past and how that’s impacted landscapes on the surface of the earth, so I’ve done a lot of work in past climate change and it’s geological record and use that to predict what might happen in the future. I have to say, my own interest in the environment started as a kid always being interested in protecting the environment. I grew up in a mining district in southern Indiana, and the water was so badly contaminated with sulfur that we had to drive to bring barrels of water into our own house to drink. We could bathe in it, we just couldn’t drink it. It smelled like rotten eggs. So even as a young kid I understood the impact the role geology had on impacting the environment. And growing up on a farm, I think that just sensitized me to those kinds of issues that were facing us at that time, and that just continued all the way through my college career and as an activist trying to protect groundwater resources in southern Indiana as an undergraduate.