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A pioneering approach to research and collaboration across geographies and disciplines has led to a MacArthur Fellowship award for an Iowa State University professor.

Lisa Schulte Moore, professor of natural resource ecology and management, was named a winner of the prestigious award often referred to as a “genius grant,” for her work to build more sustainable and resilient agricultural systems. She has led groundbreaking research into the development and use of prairie strips, which are now in use in 14 states on more than 115,000 acres of cropland through the STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips) project.

“We started as Iowa State scientists working across several departments and with U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service managers. Once our initial data showed promise, we began partnering with farmers, landowners, commodity groups, government agencies and NGOs, and then private industry,” she said. “While we still have a ‘one strip at a time’ mantra, the only way we grow to a scale where we’re solving challenges as big as climate change is by building bridges across traditional boundaries, sharing knowledge and resources, and working together.”

Research by Schulte Moore and her team have shown that planting prairie strips of native perennial plants into conventional agricultural systems like corn and soybean fields can reduce soil loss from nearby farm fields by 95% and nitrogen and phosphorous runoff by 70 to 80% by putting more roots in the ground to hold soil and nutrients in place.

Schulte Moore leads the Consortium for Cultivating Human and Naturally reGenerative Enterprises (C-CHANGE), which received a $10 million grant from the U.S. department of Agriculture to develop a new value chains for U.S. farmers, particularly the generation of renewable natural gas using biomass from perennial grasses. She also is the lead developer of the People in Ecosystems Watershed Integration (PEWI) computer simulation. She was recognized for her leadership and innovation, including working with researchers in many other disciplines to address challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, water quality and rural depopulation.

“Agriculture, energy and the environment are basic building blocks for our society, upon which other activities and outcomes are founded. The challenge we face at their intersection are multidimensional and complex, and ripple across regions, economic sectors and even culture,” she said. “No one person, lab, discipline, or enterprise has all the solutions, or can even really understand all the dimensions of a potential solution on their own. Collaboration is crucial, and being willing to listen and to learn from others coming from outside one’s own sphere is a big part of what we need to do to provide people with safe, abundant and nutritious food, and clean renewable energy.”

Schulte Moore grew up in Eau Claire, Wis., and had an early interest in science and the natural world sparked by trips to her great-grandmother’s farm and family camping trips. She earned a bachelor’s of science degree from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, a master’s of science from the University of Minnesota at Duluth, and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She joined the faculty at Iowa State University in 2003.

She notes the power of the three-part mission of land grant institutions like Iowa State that bring together research, teaching and extension to connect different generations and regions of Iowa, the United States, and the world.

“Iowa State is a world class university with all the benefits that come with it – energy, expertise, creativity, facilities, connection, labor – but still at a ‘human scale,’ where you know you’ll have the opportunity to work with a wide range of people,” said Schulte Moore. “It all starts with recruiting talented faculty, staff and students: bright and curious minds, fresh energy and excitement for what could be rather than what is today.”

Support programs including seed grants, faculty startup funds and incubator programs, along with facilities like the Biorenewables Research Laboratory, Student Innovation Center, ISU Research Park, BioCentury Research Farm, and demonstration farms are all critical to innovation at the university.

Basing research in Iowa also provides easy access to farmer and rural community stakeholders, and the landscapes that are being studied.

“Iowa is the place to be if you work on harmonizing the relationship between people and nature through agriculture,” she said. “We’re known for ‘Iowa Nice,” but we have a lot more going for us than just that. The down-to-Earth and patient can-do attitudes among people here are essential ingredients for making progress in finding solutions to Grand Challenges. I’ve found that if you meet people where they are at, there’s a real openness to respectful dialogue and figuring things out.”