Friday, May 6, 2016

SNRE Profile: Longtime soils researcher to retire

Chien-Lu Ping, left, and Gary Michaelson on the Arctic Coast during a soil sampling trip.

Gary Michaelson’s ties with the Matanuska Experiment Farm run deep. His father, Neil Michaelson, was an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) soil scientist at the farm and his maternal grandfather, William Sweetman, started the dairy-breeding program there in the 1940s —and stayed for 46 years. Michaelson’s family and grandparents lived in Palmer, but, he says, “I kind of grew up at the experiment station.”

After ARS pulled out of Palmer in the late 1960s, Michaelson’s family moved to Arizona, but he spent summers with his grandparents, working on the farm grounds crew and with agronomist Bill Mitchell on research related to the revegetation of roads developed for early North Slope oil exploration. After graduating from college in 1975, he worked as a lab technician at the Plant and Soil Analysis Laboratory for four years before going to graduate school in Iowa. While working on his master’s degree, he spent summers at the lab and returned to the farm full-time in 1982 as a researcher for the High Latitude Soils Program.

On May 12, the university will recognize Michaelson for 35 years of service, but if you add in the earlier years, he has worked at the farm well over 40 years. He will retire from the university May 31.

David Weindorf, left, and Gary Michaelson take a core sample.
Michaelson enrolled in college expecting to study medical technology, but he switched to soils and agriculture as a sophomore. “I was always interested in science,” he said. “I also realized that I wanted to work outdoors.” 

He earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural chemistry and soils from University of Arizona and a master’s degree in soil fertility from Iowa State University. For his master’s project, he studied the effects of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium on barley and bromegrass grown on a newly cleared Delta Agricultural Project tract. When he went left for graduate school, the land in Delta was just being cleared. 

Michaelson values his 30-year collaboration with soils Professor Chien-Lu Ping, who retired last December.  “We worked together on everything, he said. “My strength was the lab and his was the field.”

They worked together in the field over the summers and he worked in the lab during the winters analyzing the soil samples and data. Over the years, he has worked on a variety of soils projects, studying the properties of volcanic soil, the soil fertility for the Delta and Point MacKenzie agricultural projects, carbon storage in arctic and subarctic soils, carbon flux in arctic soils and the properties of Interior Alaska’s black spruce soils.

Altogether, he published 17 peer-reviewed journal articles as the lead author and was listed as coauthor on twice that number.

Each project he worked on was different, he said. It was like getting a new job continually. “I enjoyed it all, really,” he says. Michaelson feels that together, he and Ping made a significant contribution to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service soils database, particularly for arctic soils. Before they started that work in the 1990s, there were only a few soil data points in the Arctic. Now there are well over 100. For each site, they dug into the permafrost, made detailed descriptions and measured soil properties, nutrients and carbon storage, sometimes participating in large interdisciplinary projects that lasted years. The database is used to develop projections on how climate change will affect the release of carbon stored in frozen soils. He said it was also satisfying that the results of their work were published so others can use their research. 

Speaking from his home in Florida, Ping describes Michaelson as a dedicated and able researcher who also helped with the logistics of their work. “He was pretty indispensible in the operation,” he said. Ping notes that a 1996 journal article written by Michaelson is one of the most-cited journal articles on the subject of carbon storage and distribution in tundra soils. The paper has been cited more than 130 times in other journal articles.

Ping also notes that Michaelson worked as a technical advisor to the lab over the last 30 years. He compiled the lab manual, advised the lab tech on methodology, instrument calibration and troubleshooting. He has also helped the faculty teach the lab section of soil chemistry.

After he retires, Michaelson plans to stay in Palmer. He may continue some working on some projects with Ping, but he hopes to get out and do more things, such as traveling to Australia with his family to visit friends and family there. He also wants to do more hiking, kayaking, biking and other outdoor activities.

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