Student Highlights: Alex Fox
— MEET ALEX —
Class: Graduate Student
Alex Fox grew up in New York City and has always been interested in the underlying mechanics of the natural world. He received a BA in Mathematics and Physics at Oberlin College (2018), where he studied Astrophysics and Gravitation. After growing interested in the impacts that (mis)management has on our water and agricultural resources, he started to explore how he could apply his physics background to study these issues.
Before joining UW’s Hydrologic Science program, Alex worked at the Land Institute, where he studied perennial agriculture, and at the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Earth Systems Studies, where he studied satellite remote sensing and precision agriculture. He currently lives in Laramie with his partner Hannah and their 18-year-old cockatiel named Feathers. Alex enjoys rock climbing and mountain biking in Vedauwoo just outside of town and is an avid cook.
This shows the various elements, such as sunlight and soil moisture (inputs), that control a plant’s water usage and photosynthetic ability (outputs). For example, when there is very little soil moisture (Ψs) or when sunlight is too intense (E), embolisms can form in the plant’s vessels, limiting its ability to perform photosynthesis and take up water (K). To prevent this, it can close its stomata (GLV) to limit water loss. These variables interact in complex ways to affect how well water can enter plant roots, travel through the plant’s stem to the leaves, and be used to perform photosynthesis. In this diagram, these changes are controlled by variable resistors (squiggles) that limit how much water can pass through a given element of the plant or rhizosphere.
Source: Mackay et al. (2015), Water Resources Research
— ALEX’S RESEARCH —
Alex’s PhD research centers on using universal physics principles that govern mass and energy flow within ecosystems to predict how they function and how they react to change. Since the mass and energy flow into and out of ecosystems is easily measurable ways, they can be thought of as physical systems with simple inputs and outputs.
However, even simple ecosystems such as monocultured crops are still extremely complex. It’s not enough to simply look at correlations between resource inputs (e.g., water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sunlight) and ecosystem outputs (e.g., biomass production, soil development, and transpiration of water). Figuring out how the inputs are transformed into outputs enables us to make predictions. However, this is a difficult task that requires an accurate mechanical description of each ecosystem’s inner workings, and how mass and energy are used and transformed step-by-step inside of it.
Alex’s specific work involves studying how well models like this can be adapted to predict the effects of land management and how to use information on water and carbon cycling to study agricultural sustainability. If we know which aspects of a farm ecosystem are inefficient and can understand why this is so, we can come up with solutions that address the problem directly instead of relying on fossil fuel-based inputs to fill in any resource losses like water or nitrogen.
ABOUT STUDENT HIGHLIGHTS
Every year, we award fellowships to graduate and undergraduate students attending the University of Wyoming or one of Wyoming’s community colleges in order to provide them with the opportunity to do “real” research. Occasionally, we feature one of these students and their research on this blog. For more information about our student fellowships, visit our College Programs page.