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 VOL. 23, NO. 13JANUARY 30, 1998 


Kevin Griffin: Terrestrial Biologist Is an Expert on Plant Respiration and CO2


Among Kevin Griffin’s research projects at Lamont-Doherty are studies of pine trees in New Zealand and plant respiration of CO2 in high elevations.
Kevin Griffin bounces his 9-month-old son, Max, on his knee as he inspects his new office in the Marine Biology building at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. It looks like a small explosion recently occurred. Cardboard boxes are in various stages of being unpacked; computers are in the process of being assembled; a thin coating of paper and packing peanuts cover every surface. Griffin smiles as he and Max survey the beginnings of their new terrestrial biology lab.

  “Lamont has a long history of working in the earth sciences,” he says, “As a biologist, I find it very exciting to be here. Lamont is striking out into a new area, which happens to be my area.” Shyly, he confides, “I couldn’t be happier.”

  Griffin, professor of earth and environmental sciences, is the first terrestrial biologist to join the faculty at Lamont. His focus is carbon dioxide uptake in terrestrial plants—a field that has increasing application to the earth sciences as global climate change and greenhouse warming demand more attention and resources.

  He has published plant physiology research since 1991, but is really interested in how his research fits into the larger system of climatic impacts.

  Lamont, which is part of the Columbia Earth Institute, is a good place to do that, as the institute acquires a multidisciplinary global perspective. The aim is to increase knowledge of physical/biological/human system interaction.

  Wally Broecker, Newberry Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who has been at Lamont for 45 years, says: “If we are going to become a real earth institute, we need to reunite the biological with the geological. We need a terrestrial biologist in our midst.”

  Broecker realized the advantage of having a carbon dioxide expert, and recruited Griffin from the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., where he was the acting director of the Frits Went Laboratory. “I really wanted Lamont to move in that direction for the students. We’ve never had a course with any recent terrestrial biology,” Broecker said. “I knew Kevin would be great.”

  Despite the impressive invitation, it was not an easy decision for Griffin to make. He was literally leaving one world of study and entering another.

  “I was excited because Lamont is such an outstanding place loaded with outstanding scientists,” he says. “But not one of them really knows what I do. I can’t just walk down the hall and poke my head into an office and say, ‘Hey, my gas exchange system is broken; can I borrow yours?’ It’s a challenging position to be in.”

  It’s also a position that Griffin has been preparing for since his days as a student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. After receiving his master’s there, he worked as a technician at the Carnegie Institution of Washington at Stanford. “It was a turning point in my career in terms of what I wanted to do,” Griffin says. “Global change as a discipline was very young. I got to witness—and be a part of—the change. I wanted to learn everything I could about carbon dioxide exchange.”

  He conducted experiments in plant respiration in elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and earned his Ph.D. in botany from Duke in 1994. Within a month, the US Department of Energy recruited him for the Global Change Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Desert Research Institute. By that point, Griffin had established himself as a key player in the field of global climate change.

  Now, having completed his first semester as a professor at Columbia, Griffin admits that he finally feels like he’s home.

  “Coming here was my start, because I’ve always wanted an academic career,” he says. “Successful people are ones who have successful students. I want the constant pressure to answer hard questions from smart students.”

  He co-teaches an environmental biology course with Paul Olsen, who specializes in paleontology at Lamont. “It’s great—we cover the origin of the earth and the origin of life, the evolution of metabolic processes and even the biogeochemical definitions of ‘what is life?’ We all need the vitality that students bring to a laboratory and an institution.”

  Griffin has several research projects in hand—some with colleagues from Nevada, and other, new projects springing from the interdisciplinary nature of his presence at Lamont.

  This winter, he’s working on a study of Monterey Pine in New Zealand as well as continuing a project on plant respiration in elevated carbon dioxide environments with a biochemist in Nevada. And he already has several Lamont proposals in the works—collaborating with Columbia professor James Simpson to study how anthropogenic emissions of nitrogen are linked with carbon dioxide levels in Black Rock Forest, N.Y.

  He’s also looking toward research in carbon exchange in plant canopies at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Ariz.

  “There are new opportunities for research around every corner,” he says. “It’s spine-tingling to be in such a well-respected and supporting environment, where senior scientists feel like my success is their success.”

  Griffin is animated when he thinks about the future—his own, at Lamont and also the future of carbon dioxide research.

  “We know that carbon dioxide is continuing to go up. Ten years ago someone in the research community said ‘We’ve started the world’s greatest experiment.’ The elevated carbon dioxide research that I do is a way to not just sit back and watch.”

  He smiles at his son, who is grasping Griffin’s thumb in both of his tiny palms. “Carbon dioxide levels are increasing at 1.5 parts per million every year; stretch that out as far as you want. I know that the world Max will live in will have more carbon dioxide in it than this one. I think we have an obligation to understand the processes within that world.”