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Bräuer receives Fulbright-Saastamoien Foundation Award

BOONE—When Suzanna Bräuer travels to Finland in January, she will combine lifelong interests that began when she was a school student: science, international travel and learning foreign languages.

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An associate professor in Appalachian State University’s Department of Biology, Bräuer has received a Fulbright-Saastamoien Foundation Award in Health and Environmental Sciences to teach and conduct research at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, Finland, for six months.

Bräuer graduated from the N.C. School of Science and Math, and studied in Russia for a year as part of a study abroad experience while an undergraduate at Swarthmore College. She also has visited Norway. She speaks some Russian and Norwegian and will now add basic Finnish to her list of languages.

A microbiologist, Bräuer will study a domain of microorganisms called Archaea that play a part in methane and carbon dioxide production in peat. Bräuer hopes to identify the primary agents of methane production across a gradient – from permafrost to melting permafrost, to more highly decomposed fen (agricultural) areas and from boreal regions to the Arctic – and determine their role in climate change.

She also will teach microbial biogeochemistry classes and work with master’s and doctoral degree candidates at the university.

With 31 percent of its land mass peat-producing wetlands, Finland provides a rich backdrop for her research. “Peat-forming wetlands are the largest source of methane to the atmosphere,” Bräuer explained, “and therefore they play a large role in the climate. There is concern that with climate change, if a lot of the permafrost area melts, there is the potential for huge amounts of carbon to be released into the atmosphere. If all of that gas were released, it would almost double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. So there is a tremendous relevance to climate change.”

Her research project is designed to help answer fundamental questions related to Finland’s ecosystems and climate change:

  • What are the major culprits in methane production across boreal and arctic ecosystems?
  • How do the microbial communities change as the permafrost melts, and are these changes linked to changes in methane and carbon dioxide flux?
  • How are the methane producing (methanogenic) microorganisms in peatland ecosystems likely to respond to climate change?

“These studies will allow us to gain a better understanding of the vital connections between physical and chemical conditions and methane and carbon dioxide production, and will provide insight into the methanogenic populations contributing to climate change,” she said.

She said the work in Finland will also enhance her teaching at Appalachian. “Even though I do a lot of research in microbial biogeochemistry, I have never taught in that field, so this will give me some breadth and more experience in the teaching,” she said. “I also hope to continue collaborations I will have with faculty there and continue to advise the graduate students I will have mentored while I am at the University of Eastern Finland and help them see their projects to completion.”

Bräuer said she had been interested in pursuing a Fulbright award since her days as an undergraduate when she knew she wanted to be a professor and because of the opportunity the award provides to travel and interact with people in other countries. “My study abroad in Russia was one of the most enriching and fulfilling experiences I have had in my life,” she said.