Dr. Taniya RoyChowdhury awarded inaugural Christiana Figueres Prize

The award recognizes microbiological research that has helped fight the climate crisis

Taniya RoyChowdhury presents in front of a Woodwell Podium

Dr. Taniya RoyChowdhury speaks at the Woodwell Auditorium.

photo by Julianne Waite

Woodwell Climate Research Scientist Dr. Taniya RoyChowdhury, has been awarded the inaugural Christiana Figueres Prize for microbiology. The prize, part of the Applied Microbiology International Horizon Awards, recognizes scientists who have used microbiology to make a significant contribution to our understanding of terrestrial life and the preservation of our global ecosystem.

Figueres, for whom the prize is named, has been a leader in climate action for almost three decades, founding the Centre for Sustainable Development in the Americas in 1995 and serving as a negotiator of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change and the Vice President of the Bureau of the Climate Convention representing Latin America and the Caribbean. The prize seeks to honor scientists who have followed in her footsteps as climate leaders, using microbiology to help improve our understanding of climate change and solutions that could help mitigate emissions.

Dr. RoyChowdhury is a first-generation college student who grew up in urban India with a passion for nature and science. With help from her family, she was able to pursue an education in environmental studies.

Her research now focuses on how soil systems are responding to climate change at both the broad ecological scale and the complex microbial one.

“Microbes regulate the rate at which organic carbon inputs from plants are metabolized and stabilized in the soil,” says Dr. RoyChowdhury. “The soil microbiome is also a major driver of carbon loss via greenhouse gasses. My research seeks to quantitatively understand the responses of the soil microbiome to climate change factors.”

According to Dr. RoyChowdhury, a deeper understanding of these dynamics could help inform strategies for improving soil carbon sequestration. She has published more than 25 papers on topics like the impacts of seasonal and tidal wetland drawdowns on methane production, the impacts of drought on prairie grasslands, and the connection between land-use and management change in agroecosystems and microbial processes.

“My goal is to realize the powerful impact that soil microbiology can have towards achieving the sustainable development goals of climate action,” says Dr. RoyChowdury. “Using a multi-dimensional approach and comprehensive understanding of diverse ecosystems, I strive to provide valuable insights into the factors influencing climate vulnerability, soil health and sustainability.”

At Woodwell Climate, Dr. RoyChowdhury is currently leading research on the soil and plant productivity impacts of organic farming in Andhra Pradesh state in southern India. She has trained local volunteers and farmers to collect and analyze soil samples on 300 farms in the region, with the hopes of quantifying how organic farming practices can be used to increase carbon and other nutrients in the soils.

“The farmer is the best scientist here because they know the soils more than we could test in the lab. They have been farming for years and years and inheriting practices over generations,” says Dr. RoyChowdhury. “So when they see the changes in the soil, they’ll know it.”

The Christiana Figueres Prize was announced November 16 at the 2023 Environmental Microbiology Lecture, held at the British Medical Association House in London.

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