Faculty Spotlight

Neal Blair

Neal Blair 

Questions & Answers

1. Where were you born and where did you study (undergrad, grad, post-doc)

 I was born in Maryland and grew up in the countryside. My favorite times as a kid were spent exploring the local woods and stream. I was totally fascinated by the stream biota. My undergraduate degree is in Chemistry from the University of Maryland at College Park. It was a great department for me because it had a diverse faculty that valued applications, including geochemistry. I went to Stanford for my chemistry Ph.D. By then I had developed an interest in C-biogeochemistry, and even though the department knew little about the topic at the time, they supported my interests. My post-doctoral fellowship was done at NASA’s Extraterrestrial Research Division. There I had the fortune of studying the C-chemistry of actual ‘extraterrestrials’ (meteorites).

 2. How long have you been at NU & briefly describe your research program?

 I came to Northwestern in 2007. Broadly, I study how C cycles through organic species in surface materials such as soils and sediments. Currently, my group is investigating how land use, such as agriculture, dislocates organic C species from landscapes and transports it downstream. The fate of the dislocated C is not well understood. Nor is its net contribution to atmospheric CO2 levels. How this process will respond to increasing intensities of land management for food and biofuel production, and climate change, is a major research question.

 3. What courses do you teach?

 One of my courses is Oceans, Atmosphere and Climate (EARTH 106). This is a science distribution course for undergraduates in Weinberg College. Earth in the Anthropocene (Civ_Env 203) concerns how humans have modified the planet on a global level. It is a required introductory course for Environmental Engineers. I also teach upper-level courses in my specialties, Organic Geochemistry (Civ_Env 314) and Biogeochemistry (Civ_Env 317).

 4. Did you always know you would become a professor? What attracted you to an academic career?

 I did not start out thinking about becoming a professor. It was only during the last year of graduate school that I realized that the best way to research my own questions was as a faculty member. This was the most important thing for me. I also enjoyed teaching, so going into academia seemed logical.

 5. What is the most challenging part of your job?

 The most challenging part of the job for me is getting funding to support the research. It is highly competitive to get grants, sometimes the success rate is as low as 10% in some NSF programs. That means one must be persistent, good at what you do, and have a tolerance for disappointment. Fortunately, the funding does eventually come.

 6. What do you consider your most significant research finding or accomplishment thus far?

 The development of a conceptual model describing how C behaves as it moves laterally across landscapes and the ocean floor is one of my group’s major accomplishments. This has been a largely unconsidered part of the C-cycle until recently. As part of this effort, we have discovered that organic C in soils and sediments can often have three components, contemporary C from current ecosystems, millennial-aged C in old soils, and ancient C that is millions of years old and derived from sedimentary rocks. The ratios of those components vary with location and will have a dramatic impact on future behavior as the global environment changes.

 7. Is there someone or something that has inspired you?

 There have been so many important people in my life, but I am going to go back to the beginning. When I was in first grade, most of us were a rag-tag bunch of country kids. Into our midst came Wally. Wally’s dad was an engineer who was in the area temporarily for a project. Wally was obviously smart and worldly (compared to us). One day he brought in a Mason jar with frog eggs. Over the days and weeks, we watched the eggs hatch and the tadpoles metamorphosize.  I too was transformed. It was then that I became a scientist.  It is no coincidence that 60+ years later, I am still fascinated with what is happening in streams and rivers.

 8. What do you do for fun when you are not working?

 The growing season is my favorite time of year because I love to vegetable garden. It is in my blood growing up in the country. I also love to run. As miserable as some runs are (I have done 10 marathons), I am happy that I did each. Cooking and eating are also special activities. Sarah, my wife, and I also love to travel and view art everywhere we can find it.

 9. How do you explain what you do and why it is important to someone who isn’t a scientist or engineer?

 Food and water are the most essential needs of life. Providing both for our ever-burgeoning population is not sustainable on our current trajectory due to the environmental impacts of agriculture and water management. Our research identifies some of those impacts so that we can effectively engineer new approaches.

 10. What is one thing that has impressed you about living in Chicago?

 Chicago has world-class food, art, and architecture scenes that I enjoy. But the one thing that I most value is living by Lake Michigan. Its vistas, its sounds (listen to it in the winter), its climate modification of our neighborhood, and its recreational opportunities are all great benefits to living in the area.

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