Faculty Excellence Profile: Serita D. Frey
Serita Frey, professor of natural resources and the environment, received the 2011 Faculty Excellence Outstanding Associate Professor Award. Perry Smith, UNH Photographic Services
Serita Frey understands that soil microbes—primarily fungi—have an image problem. They’re dirt, after all, and the marquee member of the group is the mushroom, hardly a dolphin or polar bear in terms of charisma. “To bubble over about soil organisms is not easy for me,” she says.
But Frey, emerging as an international leader in the field of soil microbial ecology, urges those who would turn up a wrinkled nose at fungi to consider this: Without fungi working their decomposition magic in the Northeast’s forests, we’d be buried in leaves.
Frey has devoted her research to ensuring that soil microbes can continue this important work in the face of human-caused stressors like climate change and nitrogen deposition.
She and her collaborators, who include UNH Provost and Professor John Aber, have found that nitrogen suppresses soil microbes. “What we’re seeing is a decline in the ability of the soils to cycle nutrients, along with an accumulation of carbon,” says Frey.
“Serita’s research is vital for environmental management, because it provides insights into the effectiveness of soils as carbon ‘sinks’ that offset the impact of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide,” says Professor of Environmental Science and Presidential Chair William McDowell. McDowell lauds Frey’s innovation in the classroom as well; recently she received a USDA grant to develop a “studio soils” class, tapping an active-learning format that’s become popular in physics but is relatively untested in biological sciences.
“In the last ten years there’s been much more recognition of the importance of soil microorganisms. I like to think I’ve played some small role in that,” she says, adding, “I feel like I’ve turned a lot of students onto soils who didn’t realize how cool and important it is.”