ASU biogeochemist awarded prestigious fellowship

ASU biogeochemist awarded prestigious fellowship

November 12, 2021

  • Scientist Ferran Garcia-Pichel standing in front of building

    The American Geophysical Union recently named microbiologist and biogeochemist Ferran Garcia-Pichel a 2021 AGU Fellow. His work studies the roles, adaptations and impacts of microbes in natural environments that range from desert soils to shallow marine waters. Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU


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November 12, 2021

As a world-renowned microbiologist and biogeochemist, Ferran Garcia-Pichel has developed an understanding of the interconnectivity of the sciences. 

He studies microbial communities, examining the way bacteria exist and interact within ecosystems — and what we can glean from the simplicity and adaptability of their mechanisms.

His unique skill for distilling breakthroughs from simple observations has gifted us with many influential discoveries. For example, the discovery of microbial sunscreens that enable survival in high-stress and isolated environments has had implications from biomedicine to global warming to interpreting early life on Earth.

Throughout his remarkable career, he has forged connections of global impact, melding knowledge and approaches from disparate areas into entirely new disciplines and groundbreaking discoveries.

“I am proud of several discoveries regarding how microbes cope (or don’t) with tough situations because they represent teachable moments for our own conduct: how microbes protect themselves from sunlight’s ravages, or how their risky behaviors, like crowding together or going for a stroll, can influence their fate in the presence of epidemics,” he said.

In recognition of his pioneering achievement, the American Geophysical Union has recently named Garcia-Pichel as a 2021 AGU Fellow

AGU Fellows serve as global leaders and experts, pushing the boundaries of scientific understanding and working to create a healthier planet. Since 1962, the American Geophysical Union has elected fewer than 0.1% of members to join this prestigious group. 

“For decades, Ferran Garcia-Pichel has made tremendous contributions not only to the ASU community but to the scientific community at large,” said Kenro Kusumi, dean of natural sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of the School of Life Sciences

“His research has led to significant discoveries that are shaping our collective understanding of microbial communities in their natural habitats. This prestigious honor recognizes his interdisciplinary approach to studying microbes in ecosystems ranging from deserts to tropical islands.”

Garcia-Pichel is an ASU Regents Professor, the Virginia M. Ullman Professor of the Environment in the School of Life Sciences and the founding director of the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics at the Biodesign Institute.

He joined ASU in 2000. He was a pivotal collaborator in the foundation of the School of Life Sciences — the first academic unit created as part of ASU President Michael Crow’s vision for a New American University

He has continued to bring disciplines together, serving as dean of natural sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and establishing seven ASU research centers.

Of his many accolades, the AGU fellowship holds a particular value. 

“More than two decades ago, I was hired at ASU to provide a stronger link between life and geological sciences, even though my background was only tangentially interdisciplinary in that way. It was most definitely a career challenge,” said Garcia-Pichel. 

“Receiving this recognition from the premier society in Earth and space science means to me that my decades-long effort to bring microbial science to bear in Earth science has had a real impact across the divide. Of this, I could not be prouder.”

AGU was established in 1919 by the National Research Council and operated as an unincorporated affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences for more than 50 years. They were independently incorporated in 1972. Garcia-Pichel was elected by the Global Environmental Change section. 

“The fellows program was established in 1962 and recognizes AGU members who have made exceptional contributions to Earth and space science through a breakthrough, discovery or innovation in their field. Fellows act as external experts, capable of advising government agencies and other organizations outside the sciences upon request,” said a representative of the Union Fellows Program.  

“Dr. Garcia-Pichel is being recognized specifically for pioneering research in environmental microbiology with applications from the ancient past to the Anthropocene.”

Garcia-Pichel is now one of six ASU faculty who have received this distinguished honor, along with Ariel Anbar, President’s Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the School of Molecular Sciences, who was also elected this year. 

“Ferran is the perfect recipient of this very prestigious fellowship because of his extraordinary creativity and unique intellectual contributions to science,” said Osvaldo Sala, who was named an AGU Fellow in 2019. 

Sala is an ASU Julie A. Wrigley, Regents and Foundation Professor, and he contributes to both the School of Life Sciences and School of Sustainability. He is also the founding director of the Global Drylands Center and the leader of the Extremes Focal Area, which is part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory

“He has merged the fields of microbiology and Earth science to produce a novel understanding of the way life emerged on our planet and how it is currently being modified by humans,” Sala said of Garcia-Pichel. “Moreover, he has successfully translated his new scientific understanding into solutions to the most pressing problems of humanity, such as global change and land degradation.”

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative in the School of Earth and Space Exploration; Nancy Grimm, Regents Professor and the Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Ecology in the School of Life Sciences; and Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, are also AGU Fellows. 

Garcia-Pichel continues to focus much of his current work on the microbiology of arid lands and is looking forward to the possibilities the future holds. 

“I am keeping this open, but I am excited currently about exploring large-scale consequences of the simplest microbial traits, like cell size,” he said.

“Who knows what’s next? Something exciting, I hope.”

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Written by: Dominique Perkins