Kristina Young at Moab’s local KZMU radio station. [Courtesy Kristina Young]

You can call her Dr. Kristina Young, after the founder of local nonprofit Science Moab completed her graduate program and defended her thesis last month.

“It feels so great,” she said.

Young focused her doctoral research on desert biocrusts while also promoting science outreach and education in the community through Science Moab’s radio interviews, live events, and a column in this newspaper. She recently took on a new position as an extension assistant professor of horticulture and natural resources at Utah State University Moab, through which she’ll continue promoting science education while also addressing practical questions and problems in landscaping and natural resource management.

Sitting at her desk in her new office at the Utah State University Moab campus, Young described her new role as being “a bridge between the university and the community,” making academic research and findings both more accessible and useful to the public. Her own background in desert ecology and biological soil crusts may be directly applicable to community needs, and she can also connect with other experts locally and regionally.

“There’s so much opportunity for collaboration,” Young said, “because Utah State has such an incredible diversity of scientists and different experts in different fields. And then, of course, the whole region—it’s not just about one university.”

Young has already begun acting as that bridge. She started her new job just a few days after the Pack Creek Fire was contained, and the fire gave her an issue to start researching right away.

“We got a phone call from someone in the Pack Creek community being like, ‘My whole yard is burned—what do I do?’” Young remembered. “I realized that there was a need to think about techniques to stabilize soils and get re-veg going in this semi-arid environment like we have here.” She said a lot of existing research provides data on forested areas or wetter environments, but data on climates like Moab’s is less plentiful.

“I’ve been putting together some informational fact sheets that are looking at all the best available science… really thinking about how it’s relevant to here, in our specific environment, or specific soil type or specific slopes, and what kind of options exist for re-vegetation and soil stabilization in this area.”

Young is helping to organize a meeting in the fall with experts in soil science and restoration to talk about the effects of the fire with community members and discuss needs and possible solutions. The group hopes to generate ideas for restoration and gather the tools, knowledge, and resources to help property owners implement some of those techniques. Young and others will monitor the outcomes of different techniques to see what works best and inform future projects and responses to fire.

Young said she’s also in discussions with local public lands managers about how to get better measurements on the ecological impacts of visitor use.

“We can count the number of people, but we don’t have any great idea of how much soil erosion is happening and things like that,” she explained.

On the horticulture side of her position, Young said she will work closely with the city and the county, and with local food growers, to provide data and research to inform water planning and land use.

“This drought is no joke,” she observed. “So how do we respect that we’re in a desert, but still have a place that we want to live in, that has beautiful flowers, and food can be grown here—how do we balance all of those needs?”

A special place

Moab’s unique character is a passion for Young. She first visited Moab when she was an undergraduate student in Montana, fleeing the long northern winters for a weekend trip. She was hooked on the area and looked for opportunities to come back, and started working in Moab at the US Geological Survey in 2011.

“I just fell in love with asking cool questions about this place and how it works,” she said of Moab. “What is this desert doing? And how do plants even live here?” When she started asking those questions, she learned that a lot of them don’t have detailed, certain answers—there was, and still is, a lot of research to be done.

“There’s a lot of outstanding questions,” said Young, with enthusiasm. “When you start getting into science, you could just look around and come up with a million questions… you realize there’s so much that we don’t actually, really, all-the-way understand—especially about deserts.”

In her doctoral research, Young sought to discover some information that would help answer one such question by studying how biological soil crusts cycle nutrients into dry, nutrient-poor desert soils. She took biocrust samples into a greenhouse and experimented with watering them, and measured what kinds and quantities of nutrients they exuded.

“[Biocrusts] go dormant when they’re dry, and they become active again when they’re wet. And every time they do that they kind of ‘leak’ out some stuff from themselves, and that stuff can have things like nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus,” she explained. When it rains and those substances are released from the crusts, they seep into the soil below, “where the plant roots are, where the fungi and microbial communities that live around roots are,” Young went on, “and they’re the ones who can be turning nutrients over and making them available to plants.”

Young also researched ways that desert restoration efforts could be more successful, by understanding and then selecting optimum locations and conditions for biocrusts and native vegetation to take hold and thrive.

“Drylands are degrading rapidly around the world because of human use and because of climate change,” she said. In degraded drylands, the natural systems that keep nutrients cycling and vegetation growing break down, and can lead to dusty landscapes prone to erosion, invasive species, and intense fires.

“Dryland areas are expanding,” Young said. “It’s paramount that we figure out how they function, and then how to make them do the things that we want them to do.”

“All science is iterative,” she said. “Science is never really saying, ‘This is true;’ science is saying, ‘We asked this question, and, given statistics, this is what we found.’ So my work was another small, hopefully useful, piece of information pushing our understanding of how deserts work forward.”

Sharing the wonder

While Young was working with USGS, helping scientists study the ecology of the area, she was enthralled by what she was learning. The knowledge and perspectives of people who study the landscape and its living components closely gave her a deep appreciation for the natural world and a sense of wonder and excitement. She wanted everyone to have access to those insights, and that was her motivation for launching Science Moab.

“Everyone should have access to that, because it just enriches your experience of what you see around you in your own backyard,” she said.

She started out by interviewing scientists on a radio program on local community radio station KZMU, asking them to explain their research.

“I got super into it,” she recalled. “I just so loved the conversations personally because it was just fun for me to get to talk to all these people and ask whatever questions I want.” She also got positive feedback from the community. People told her they enjoyed the program and were learning from it. Other community members got excited and got involved, and helped hatch ideas like Science on Tap, a regular event that hosts a presenting scientist at a local bar, and Science on Screen, in which a scientist analyzes a popular film through a science lens ahead of a public screening of the movie.

Science Moab is launching two new programs. One is an internship program for local high school students, which will host its first interns this fall, through which high school juniors and seniors are paired with scientist mentors. The other is a guide science certification program, through which local outdoor guides can get in-depth knowledge about a particular place or field to be able to share with their clients.

Young has stepped back from a leadership role at Science Moab to sit on the board. Her new role as an extension assistant professor gives her the ability to help support and complement the work of Science Moab. She hopes to grow similar science outreach programs beyond just Moab and into other parts of the state by networking with other academic centers like Dixie State University.

A science hub

Young hopes that soon the name “Moab” will trigger a similar sense of reverence as the name “Galapagos Islands”—that people will associate the four corners region with unique, spectacular opportunities for natural scientific research and discovery.

“The Colorado Plateau itself is quite unique,” Young said. The region is at the intersection of different desert systems, and is uplifted from neighboring regions, creating the opportunity for unique ecosystems and endemic species to develop.

“Also, this place is unique because of the number of different forms of knowing that exist here from indigenous knowledge and the different tribes and communities that are on the plateau,” added Young. “It’s both this incredibly unique and special ecological place, and then it’s also a really rich cultural place.”

The Colorado Plateau is also rich in dinosaur bones and other fossils, offering research opportunities for paleontologists.

Young’s dedication to scientific research and communication is rooted in her own sincere wonder and joy in the field. As a child and young adult, she didn’t think she had any interest in science at all until she took a botany course as an undergraduate student. She had to complete at least one science class to satisfy graduation requirements, and thought botany would be easy. The class ended up inspiring her to change her whole direction of study, eventually leading her to where she is now.

“I owe a lot to that professor,” she laughed, remembering the botany professor that helped her get interested in and excited about the complexities and mysteries of how plants work. Even as that excitement was kindled, she remembered feeling daunted by the field of science, unsure if she was up to its rigor. She credits her mentors with teaching her how to conduct science with integrity.

“There’s not just one way to enter into science,” she said. “You don’t have to be a certain type of person to want to understand the world.”

That background as someone who thought they didn’t like science may be why Young is so keen on nurturing conversations between academic scientists and those who feel like outsiders in that field.

“Anyone who’s presenting information to you—it’s their job that you understand it, not yours,” she said. “They have to meet you where you’re at.”

She also treasures any opportunities to gain insight from knowledge paradigms other than the western, hypothesis-testing approach to science.

“One of the oldest knowledge sets is the indigenous knowledge that exists here on the Colorado Plateau,” she said. “There’s a wealth of understanding that different people in different communities hold.” The more perspectives you welcome, she said, the better ideas you’re going to generate.

“It just is silly not to incorporate different types of understanding,” she said.