Bruce Hungate: Focusing on Microbial Ecology and the Environment

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Professor, Department of Biological Sciences

College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences

Director, Center for Ecosystem Science and Society 


Bruce Hungate, PhD

Dr. Bruce Hungate, professor of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, credits his grandfather for exposing him to science at a young age. “He would give me a micro-lecture on the physics of saline while we were out on the sail boat. It was terrifying and impressive at the same time,” Hungate laughingly recalls.

It was also his grandfather who led him to his first summer job as a microbiologist. In the lab, Hungate studied the bacteria that live on rocks in the Negev Desert to gain a better understanding of desert varnish formations.

Although he found his summer work in the lab fascinating, for his first three years as a Stanford University undergraduate, Hungate invested most of his energy studying poetry and music theory. “I really got into poetics, literary analysis, Shakespeare, Renaissance motets, and musicology. I loved it.”

Changing Direction

Then came a major turning point. After realizing how difficult it was to make a career out of music theory, Dr. Hungate decided to give science a real chance. After all, he loved the outdoors, especially the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area in Washington state, where he spent many happy days as a child. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘All right, I’m going to go ahead and give it a try.’’

And so he did. “All of a sudden, I was curious as to where [science] was leading me. It all became accessible and interesting. I wanted to know how I could put it all together,” he said.

After some reflection, research, and advice from his professor , Hungate decided to take the next step and attend graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley to study nutrient cycling, climate change, and grasslands. His career as an environmental scientist officially began.

After receiving his PhD in integrative biology, Hungate worked on climate change projects at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, as well as on nitrogen management and agriculture projects in Mexico City. Those experiences led him to the work he is doing today.

Current Work

Dr. Hungate is the director of the Ecosystem Science & Society Center (Ecoss) at NAU, where his research projects—and those of many others—are housed. His work focuses primarily on microbial ecology and its significance in understanding global environmental change. Hungate notes, “Microorganisms are these incredibly tiny, but powerful creatures in many dimensions—from global element cycles and climate change to human health.”

One of Hungate’s current research projects analyzes the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services. Hungate wants to know, “Can we put an economic value on biodiversity from the perspective of particular ecosystem services, such as carbon storage? It’s a very tough project: It’s technically tough and ethically challenging.”

Hungate has co-authored more than 125 publications.  A number of his research results have been published in well-known journals, including Bioscience, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, and Nature Climate Change.

Hungate also directs the Colorado Plateau Analytical Laboratory, which is part of Ecoss, and he is cofounder of NAU’s Master’s degree program in Climate Science and Solutions. In 2004, he was selected as an Aldo Leadership Fellow, a very competitive and prestigious fellowship program that identifies 20 accomplished U.S. environmental scientists each year.

Despite his busy schedule, Hungate absolutely loves what he does. “It is such a privilege to get paid to think about these important problems in society, design research around them, talk about them, and interact with students. It’s just amazing,” he says.

--Candice Giffin


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