Bruce Hungate: Focusing on Microbial Ecology and the Environment
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
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.”
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.
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.