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New faculty profile: Zac Freedman digs into soil microbial communities

Zac Freedman joined the UW–Madison faculty in June 2020 as an assistant professor in the Department of Soil Science.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Chicago and grew up in Evanston, Illinois. I’m thrilled to be back in the Midwest after living in several different parts of the country.

What is your educational/professional background?
I earned my B.S. in biology from Fairfield University and my Ph.D. in ecology and evolution from Rutgers University. After graduate school, I was a postdoctoral fellow in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. Most recently, I was an assistant professor of environmental microbiology in the Division of Plant and Soil Sciences at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV.

How did you get into your field of research?
I began my undergraduate career with dreams of becoming a physician. While I enjoyed the science, I realized that the medical path was not for me. After a couple of years of intellectual exploration, I became keenly interested in environmental issues. After some discussion with mentors, I was certain that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in ecology or environmental science but was uncertain about what area of research to pursue. To help me with my decision, my eventual Ph.D. advisor gave me a copy of Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth by Andrew Knoll. I was absolutely floored by the influence that microbial life has had on the evolution of life on earth. I also had no idea about the complexity of the relationships between microbes and larger life forms, especially in soil. After reading this book, I realized I wanted to dedicate my professional life to the study of the microbial world and the ecosystem processes they mediate to help preserve our natural resources in the present and to predict the fate of natural resources in the future.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
My research program investigates soil microbial communities and how the critical ecosystem functions they mediate (like decomposition and nitrogen cycling) can be altered by environmental change in natural and managed ecosystems. Broadly, my research seeks to understand (1) how selective pressures imposed by environmental changes affect microbial communities and their ecosystem functions, (2) if microbes can be directly or indirectly manipulated to improve ecosystem processes, and (3) how microbes interact with each other and other biota in the environment and the functional consequences of these interactions. The particular environments my program focuses on are diverse, from the hardwood forests of the Upper Great Lakes, to reclaimed mined land in Appalachia, to carnivorous pitcher plants. Much of my current work explores whether soil microbes can be leveraged to engineer bioproduct agroecosystems that store more carbon in soil than is released to the atmosphere as CO2, thus being “carbon negative.”

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
Given my early life spent in a Big 10 college town, I have always been attracted to campuses that combine rigorous academics, competitive athletics, and exciting culture. I think that what makes UW–Madison and CALS truly special, in addition to these attributes, is the cutting-edge collaborative and impactful scholarship combined with a down-to-earth sensibility. Being nestled between a beautiful lake and an eclectic college town is icing on the cake! I was also very struck by the mission of the Department of Soil Science specifically; the soils department lives the land grant mission and is well-positioned to address current and future challenges in food and energy security, sustainability, environmental change, and other issues that have very real impacts on communities and the planet.

What was your first visit to campus like?
My first trip to UW–Madison was on a family weekend trip when I was 9, and I remember running around Library Mall and how huge the campus felt. My first visit to campus as an adult was during my postdoc when my labmates and I stopped in Madison on a road trip from Ann Arbor to Minneapolis to attend a conference. We strolled up Bascom Hill and down State Street on a picture-perfect midsummer day and I remember thinking “this would be a sweet place to be.”

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
From the content I teach, I hope that students come away with the perspective that individual microorganisms may be tiny in size, but the collective impact of microbes’ influence on the earth is massive. From my broader philosophy on higher education, I hope that students come away from my class stronger critical thinkers, readers, communicators and better prepared in whatever fields they choose to pursue and as citizens of the world.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I share my love for soil microbes through Twitter. I’m @ZacFreedman.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Most definitely! Environmental processes performed by soil microbes are critical for keeping the air we breathe, food we eat, water we drink, and ecosystems we share healthy. An enhanced understanding of how environmental changes impact soil microbes can improve damaged ecosystems of the present, as well as enhance predictions of what Wisconsin will look like in the future. In this way, my work in the microbiology of sustainable agriculture and forest health will be relevant to many stakeholders across the state, from farmers in Kenosha County to land managers in the Northwoods.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
Soil is alive! It’s estimated that 20,000 pounds of living matter exists in the top six inches of an acre of soil. Also, one tablespoon of soil harbors more organisms than there are people on earth.

What are your hobbies/other interests?
I enjoy long walks, hikes, bike rides, road trips, relaxing at the beach and discovering new music. I am also a big sports fan (Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks and Gonzaga hoops) and I love to play hockey. I am looking forward to exploring everything Madison has to offer!