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Xin Zhang receives NSF CAREER Award

April 1, 2021

Award will support understanding of nitrogen pollution reduction in Chesapeake Bay watershed and beyond

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Assistant Professor Xin Zhang a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award to lead a five-year research program to help understand how to align the interest and action of various stakeholders in the agro-food system with nitrogen pollution reduction in the watershed. The goal is help inform decision-making for sustainable nitrogen use and effective ecosystem management in the Chesapeake Bay and estuaries around the world.

Dr. Xin Zhang

“Managing nitrogen is fundamental, yet challenging, for sustainable development,” said Zhang. “Nitrogen plays a critical role in boosting agriculture productivity but it has adverse impacts on the environment.”

Technologies and management practices have become increasingly available and affordable to improve the efficiency of nitrogen use in crop and livestock production, but limited improvement has been observed in environmental outcomes. For example, nitrogen-use efficiency in crop production has significantly increased and nitrogen fertilizer use has leveled off in the U.S., but the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico are still expanding, mostly driven by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from agriculture production. Similar impacts have been seen in the Choptank River watershed on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, often viewed as a microcosm of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

“The improvement of nitrogen management in a crop or a livestock farm does not necessarily translate to pollution reduction on a regional to global scale due to the complex responses of natural and human systems and lack of coordination among stakeholders,” said Zhang. “Those are a very important area of work, but it’s not enough. It’s not sufficient to address the all-around nitrogen input to Chesapeake Bay and food system.”

Zhang will use the most recent advances in nitrogen cycle studies in both ecological and social science disciplines to track changes in nitrogen management performance over time and space, and to identify management and engineering gaps that have been often neglected in the agro-food system. This research will help enable innovative technological and policy solutions, and assist decision-making by stakeholders.

“After all we are all sharing the burden of nitrogen pollution in the bay an around the world. We are all enjoying the benefits the nitrogen use in terms of the food on the table, fuel in the tank, and clothes in the closet. It’s really a shared responsibility among different stakeholders,” she said.

Models and indicators will be co-developed and implemented through collaborations with Chesapeake Bay Program, Maryland Department of Agriculture, Environmental Defense Fund, and several international organizations, seeking direct impact on policies and informing consumers and producers in the Chesapeake and around the world. 

The data, indicators, models, and course materials produced by this project will also be made publicly available online for use by other scientists, educators, farm advisors and students, and a one-semester course will be developed with UMCES’ Cat Stylinski and Bill Dennision to provide students unique opportunities to work with stakeholders on co-developing communication products about nitrogen management in the agro-food system targeted for wide distribution and use.

The nearly $500,000 award is part of the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program that offers the most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models and are building a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

“I am excited about this unique opportunity to work with colleagues across boundaries of disciplines and sectors and to co-develop a research and education program for addressing the wicked problem of nitrogen in the food system," said Zhang 

Zhang’s research focuses on evaluating how socioeconomic and biogeochemical processes affect the global nitrogen cycle and the sustainability of agricultural production and, in turn, provide policy input on mitigating nitrogen pollution while meeting global food and biofuel demands.