Discovering how biomes respond to climate change | MIT News

Before Leila Mirzagoli came to MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) to begin her postdoc appointment, she spent most of her time developing cosmological models to determine the properties of gravitational waves in space.

But as a member of Assistant Professor César Terrer’s lab at CEE, Mirzagholi uses his physics and mathematics background to advance our understanding of the various factors that affect how much carbon land ecosystems can store under climate change.

„What’s always been important to me is thinking about how to solve a problem and put all the pieces together to create something new,” Mirzagoli says, which is one of the possible reasons she switched fields—and what drives her as a climate scientist today.

Growing up in Iran, Mirzagoli knew he wanted to be a scientist from an early age. As a child, he was fascinated by physics, spending his free time at the local cultural center hosting science events. „I remember there was an observatory at the center that gave observation tours, and that got me into science,” says Mirskoli. She also remembers a time when she was a child Science Fiction Movie „Communication” It introduces a female scientist character who discovers evidence of extraterrestrial life and builds a spacecraft to make first contact: „After that movie my mind was set on pursuing astrophysics.”

Encouraged by his parents to develop a strong mathematical background before pursuing physics, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Tehran. He completed a one-year master’s course in mathematics at the University of Utrecht before completing his doctorate in theoretical physics at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Munich. There, Mirskoli’s thesis focused on developing cosmological models focusing on phenomenological features such as propagating gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background.

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Midway through his PhD, Mirskoli became discouraged from developing models to explain the dynamics of the early universe because new data were scarce. „It starts off personal and becomes a game: 'Is this my model or your model?’,” he explains. She was frustrated not knowing when the prototypes she had created would be tested.

It was during this time that Mirskoli began reading more about the topics of climate change and climate science. „I was really motivated by the problems and the nature of the problems, especially to scale up global landscape ecology,” he says. She also liked the idea of ​​contributing to a global problem we all face. „Maybe I can do my part, I can work on research that will benefit society and the planet,” she began to think.

He moved on following his PhD and started as a postdoc in the Crowther lab at ETH Zurich, working on understanding the effects of environmental changes on global plant activity. After working at ETH, where his colleagues collaborated on projects with the Terror Lab, he relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts to join the lab and CEE.

His latest article Science, co-authored by researchers from ETH, shows how global warming affects the timing of autumn leaf maturation. „It’s important to understand the length of the growing season, and how much capacity a forest or other biome has to take up carbon from the atmosphere.” Using remote sensing data, she was able to understand when the growing season would end in a warming climate. „We distinguish between two dates – when autumn starts and the leaves start to turn yellow, and when the leaves are 50 percent yellow – to indicate the progression of leaf senescence,” he says.

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In an environment of rising temperatures, warming plays an important role when it occurs. If warming temperatures occur before the summer solstice, it prompts trees to start their seasonal cycles faster, leading to less photosynthesis, ending earlier in the fall. On the other hand, if warming occurs after the summer solstice, it delays the color change process, prolonging autumn. „For each degree Celsius of pre-solstice warming, the onset of leaf senescence is advanced by 1.9 days, while each degree Celsius of post-solstice warming delays the senescence process by 2.6 days,” he explains. Understanding the timing of autumn leaf maturity is essential in efforts to predict carbon storage capacity when modeling global carbon cycles.

Another issue he is working on at the Terror Lab is figuring out how deforestation is changing our local climate. How much does it cool or warm the temperature, and how does the hydrological cycle change due to deforestation? Exploring these questions will provide insight into how much we can rely on natural solutions for carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change. „Quantitatively, we want to put a number on the amount of carbon uptake from different natural solutions, as opposed to other solutions,” he says.

With his postdoc appointment a year and a half away, Mirzagoli has begun considering his next career move. He likes the idea of ​​applying for climate scientist jobs at industry or national labs. Whether he pursues a career in academia or industry, Mirzagoli aims to continue conducting basic climate science research. Her diverse background in physics, mathematics, and climate science has given her a multifaceted perspective that she applies to every research problem.

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„Looking back, I am grateful for my educational experiences, my childhood spent at the Cultural Center, my background in physics, the support of my colleagues in the Crowther lab at ETH that led to my transition from physics to ecology, and now working at MIT with Professor Terer, because it shaped my career path. And the researcher I am today.

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