Skip to main content

Melanie Mayes: Understanding soil carbon

Melanie Mayes is advancing understanding of complex soil processes at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory with the aim of informing climate solutions that could boost the carbon storage capacity of soils.

Mayes is a geologist who designs experiments to build better models of natural processes. She leads the Biogeochemical Dynamics Group in the Environmental Sciences Division, participates in ORNL’s Climate Change Science Institute and was a lead science editor for the US Global Change Research Program’s Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report.

What climate-related problem are you working on?

I focus on soils and microbes that live in soils. Soils are a huge reservoir of carbon. They store more carbon than both the atmosphere and all vegetation combined. Vegetative material that comes into soils can be degraded by microbes and, therefore, is released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. At the same time, what microbes don’t chew up stays in soil and is preserved as organic material. And so that balance between what gets released to the atmosphere and what stays in soils is really important for predicting future climate.

Why does the research matter?

My research is important for people’s lives because soils are such an important reservoir of carbon. If we can figure out how to use soils and ecosystems to take up more carbon than they currently are, we can help mitigate climate warming.

What keeps you motivated?

My research is fun and interesting. There is always something more to learn about what is happening in soils. It is a really complex environment. At the same time, my research is meaningful. What I’m learning about soils has important implications for our climate future and for people’s futures.

What about the research keeps you up at night?

We’ve known for decades that climate warming and greenhouse gas emissions are a problem, but we haven’t proceeded very far along with developing technological solutions or implementing those solutions in order to mitigate climate warming.

What would you tell a student interested in pursuing a career in climate science or a related field?

Do it! Your country needs you, and the world needs you. We need people to work in climate science to help build a better future for ourselves. At the same time, science is so fun and engaging. You get to meet different people from around the world. I’ve gotten to go do field work in lots of exciting places. And really the biggest thing is what a satisfying career it is. When you’re fifty as a scientist, you’re just getting into your groove. There’s always more learning and more growth, so it’s a fabulously exciting career to embark on.