Quantitative ecologist wins Tansley Medal for plant science contributions

Kai Zhu standing outside a building on the UC Santa Cruz campus
Kai Zhu joined the UC Santa Cruz faculty in 2017 and is now an assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Department. Photo by Melissa De Witte.

From a global field of applicants, environmental studies assistant professor Kai Zhu was recently chosen as one of two honorees to receive the Tansley Medal for Excellence in Plant Science. This annual award, presented by the journal New Phytologist, recognizes early-career researchers who are making outstanding contributions to the field.

Zhu said the win was both an honor and a bit of a surprise, since his approach to research differs notably from many past winners. Zhu specializes in applying advanced statistics and data science to help form a clearer picture of how ecosystems are responding to environmental change. As a passionate ecologist, he was thrilled to win an award named for Arthur Tansley, one of the founders of the field.

"Tansley is the scientist who first proposed the word ecosystem, which is really encouraging for me," Zhu said. "It's the concept of not just thinking about a narrow field of study, but taking a systems-level view."

Since Zhu joined the UC Santa Cruz faculty in 2017, his work has included calculating the carbon sequestration capacity of North American forests and studying how soil fungal communities may affect forest resilience. Zhu also received a major three-year National Science Foundation grant in 2019 to study the composition of soil fungi communities across North America.

His Tansley Medal win was based on the strength of his past scientific achievements, plus a review paper he submitted that was published in January. In that paper, Zhu synthesized both his own work and emerging research across the field to propose a new framework for integrating the study of forest regrowth processes with the effects of environmental change. Both factors have important implications for the future carbon sequestration potential of forests.

"I think it's time for us to integrate these two together and have a more inclusive view of how the forest might change in the future," Zhu explained.

As part of his Tansley Medal award, Zhu's work and personal story will be featured in a special editorial within a forthcoming issue of New Phytologist