Mike Masters: Deeply Rooted in Sustainability, the U of I

Mike Masters: Deeply Rooted in Sustainability, the U of I

Mike Masters, Field Research Specialist for the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation (LC3M), is no stranger to sustainability or to the University of Illinois — in fact, he’s been with both since the very beginning.

“I’ve been around forever!” Masters said proudly of his alma mater. “In the academic world of short projects and high turnover, 10-plus years in once place sure seems like it.”

In 2005, Masters graduated from Illinois with a B.S. in Integrative Biology (IB), or “big-picture biology” — not only that, but he was part of the first-ever class of undergrads to do so. (Departmental rearrangement had recently divided programming into molecular and cellular biology (MCB) and the newly created IB.) Shortly thereafter, he chose to stick around the Champaign-Urbana campus to pursue an M.S. in Plant Biology.

“I was always interested in biology,” he said. “The process of life and ecosystem science in general has always been one of my passions.”

While pursuing his Master’s, Mike studied topics such as nutrient cycling and biogeochemistry. His research was primarily focused on a New Hampshire long-term ecological research site called Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, where he conducted field work on insect-plant interaction.

After a December graduation, Masters had little time to rest before starting work in January — and luckily, he didn’t have far to travel. His first full-time position involved working alongside iSEE Baum Family Director Evan H. DeLucia at what was then the Illinois Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI). At EBI, Masters compared and contrasted perennial grasses with their annual counterparts — like corn and soy — to determine the ecosystem consequences of going from conventional row crop agriculture to perennial grass biofuel crops. He spent most of his time out on the Illinois Energy Farm, “a world-premiere field site and wonderful place to work.”

“I really enjoyed school, and I enjoyed science, so I saw myself in that role. But I don’t know necessarily if I envisioned myself being a scientist, at least not early on,” Masters said.

Basalt application at the Illinois Energy Farm in October 2018.

Even so, his next step advanced his career not only as a scientist, but as a scientist working on the Energy Farm. After staying with EBI for its full eight-year lifespan, Masters joined DeLucia with iSEE’s newly funded LC3M project. Stationed in the heart of America’s agricultural ecosystem, the U of I team is the “midwestern temperate deployment” of LC3M. And while research is being conducted across the globe from Malaysia to India, to Sheffield, England, all LC3M team members are devoted to the study of one process: enhanced weathering.

Enhanced weathering, so coined as the objective is to increase the rate of the naturally occurring process of rock breakdown, is the practice of applying ground-up basalt — essentially, “rock fertilizer” — to agricultural systems. In theory, this process sequesters CO2 in the soil while also providing secondary benefits to crops such as micronutrient fertilization and an increase in soil pH. While the LC3M’s research is brought into sharp relief by climate change and the need to curb carbon emissions, the process of weathering itself is ancient history.

“A lot of the actual measurements I’ve been making at the Energy Farm, closing nutrient budgets, sampling water from tile drains, people have been doing for many years,” Masters said. “In this case, it’s the application that’s new and interesting, not necessarily the technology.”

Currently, the Illinois team is applying basalt rock to two crop systems: the standard Midwestern corn/soy rotation, and a single variety of perennial grass. The goal for both experiments is to “apply a very high rate of rock on an annual cycle,” and quantify the results over a five-year timespan. These results, Masters, said could have far-reaching implications.

Basalt fertilizer on agricultural crops at the Illinois Energy Farm.

“In graduate school I worked in forests, and believed that that’s where all the science was,” he said. “But this corn-soy system that we have is the largest biome in the continental U.S., and it’s really exciting to be working on an area with such an impact. This current weathering project is literally scalable to the entire agricultural region. The potential impacts could be really big.

“I’m very happy with where I’m at. I think I’ve found a niche for me that works really well.”

His specific niche on the Leverhulme project revolves around his role as a Field Technician — a role “dictated by the growing season and the cycle of what happens in the field.

“I spend a lot of time in the cold, sampling water in the spring and early winter, and I spend a lot of time in the heat collecting biomass,” he said.

Intense manual labor aside, Masters also appreciates the mentally challenging aspects of his position, as well as the diverse day-to-day tasks and responsibilities that keep him on his toes. But despite the challenges, the end result makes it all worth it.

“It has been challenging at times, but that’s the nature of research,” he said. “That’s why we do these things. If we already knew the answers, we wouldn’t have to do the work.

“There’s not going to be one technological advancement or one cure-all that solves climate change. It’s going to be a number of local solutions, of people beginning to understand the problem and wanting to work toward something better.”

Luckily, projects like the LC3M contain researchers like Masters, who have sided with sustainability from the beginning. They not only understand and care about the problem, but are out in the field year-round working hard in pursuit of a solution.

And while his roots run deep in Illinois, LC3M research will help realize those solutions all around the world.

Read the full research profile of LC3M researcher Ilsa Kantola.

Read a Q Magazine article about Dr. Kantola and the Leverhulme. 

— Article and Photos by iSEE Communications Specialist Jenna Kurtzweil