U prof. awarded for leaf research

Peter Reich was recognized for his discovery of the rules of leaf design.

Peter Reich

Ian Larson

Peter Reich

Raghav Mehta

After conducting a 20-year study that spanned two continents, Peter Reich knows a thing or two about leaves. Reich, a professor in the Department of Forest Resources, received the BBVA FoundationâÄôs Frontiers of Knowledge and Culture award last month for his study that examined the fundamentals of leaf design. âÄúItâÄôs the closest thing to the Nobel Prize you can get for ecology,âÄù Reich said about his recent award. While the award celebrates the individualâÄôs entire body of work, the foundation emphasized his discovery of the universal rules of leaf design. Assisted by an international network of researchers, Reich discovered that knowing certain aspects of the structure and chemical makeup of a leaf can reveal critical information about the nature of its ecology and the rate at which it exchanges water and carbon with the atmosphere. This information allows researchers to understand and predict the functions of all kinds of leaves, including how they might respond to rising carbon dioxide levels and to climate change. The studies were conducted over the course of 20 years, with Reich collaborating with scientists across the globe. Beginning in the northern Amazon basin, Reich developed an international network of researchers and established 175 sites around the world where the physiology and chemistry of the species in local plant communities were measured. With categories ranging from climate change to economics, the BBVA Foundation honors individuals for unique and groundbreaking work produced in their field of study. The BBVA Foundation is the philanthropic branch of Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, a Spanish banking institution. The award includes commemorative artwork, a cash prize and a June ceremony in Madrid, where he will give a speech. âÄúIt suggests that the work IâÄôve been doing has hopefully made a positive impact both in science and how science can be used to affect policy,âÄù Reich said. âÄúI was stunned to get it.âÄù Other research locations included Minnesota, New Mexico and Australia. Despite his commitment to environmental research, Reich insists he wasnâÄôt always an outdoors person. Originally from the East Coast, Reich said his interest in the environment and ecosystems stemmed from his undergraduate experience at VermontâÄôs Goddard College, where he studied physics and creative writing. Accustomed to the âÄústerileâÄù nature of suburban life, Reich said Vermont led him to become âÄúvery interested in this close connection between how we treat the environment and what that means for us.âÄù Afterward, Reich earned his masterâÄôs degree in forest ecology and tree physiology from the University of Missouri and went on to receive a doctorate degree from Cornell University. Alan Townsend, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, commented on the thoroughness of ReichâÄôs research. âÄú[Reich] does a nice job of combining really well-thought-out experimental work, which can reveal key mechanisms for how systems function, with really large, almost global-scale synthetic work where heâÄôs pulling together data from all over the world and looking for emerging patterns from that,âÄù Townsend said. âÄúHeâÄôs published a tremendous amount of really great work over the years.âÄù Jacek Oleksyn, a colleague who collaborated with Reich on the leaf study, has been working with him since 1989. âÄúHeâÄôs an amazingly bright person,âÄù Oleksyn said. âÄúIâÄôm just surprised he didnâÄôt get it sooner.âÄù