MSU doctoral student earns NASA fellowship

MSU forestry student will study global environmental concerns related to the Amazon rainforest

EAST LANSING, Michigan – Leonardo Ziccardi, a doctoral student in the MSU Department of Forestry, was recently named a recipient of the Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST) fellowship.  

Ziccardi was awarded a three-year grant for his research initiative studying how the Amazon rainforest will respond to climate change. Working with his project mentor Scott Stark, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Forestry, Ziccardi is focusing on measurements of carbon dynamics and chlorophyll fluorescence of trees within the Amazon.  

The Science Mission Directorate (SMD) of NASA solicits proposals from accredited U.S. universities and other eligible organizations for graduate student-led research that contributes to the goals and objectives of the organization. 

Tropical ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest, are threatened by various disturbances, including deforestation, fire and drought, with the possibility of such events worsening with the effects of climate change. There is a longstanding debate on whether the Amazon will adapt to future changes in climate: whether it can thrive in a drier environment or instead begin to transform into more of a tropical savanna.  

Ziccardi hopes to help researchers predict the impacts of forthcoming climate change on the Amazon rainforest, and ideally, other locations worldwide. The fellowship will provide Ziccardi with additional resources and time to collect and analyze data, allowing researchers to understand correlations and predict future outcomes more thoroughly.  

One of the vital components in this research initiative is capturing field data throughout the rainforest. Ziccardi accomplishes this through tree climbing and measuring vertical variation of photosynthesis in leaves throughout the forest, which helps in building models for future reference. 
“From the start of his Ph.D., I have been very impressed with Leo’s focus and ability to set his sights on something and accomplish it. When Leonardo first came to MSU, he did not have experience tree climbing, but he was presented with the opportunity to try. After his first trip to our field site in the Tapajos National Forest, Leonardo was able to climb with our collaborator Neill Prohaska, a sort of ‘tropical tree climbing guru,’ and Leo was thrilled about the prospect of incorporating this in his work,” recalled Stark. “I think it is safe to say that he is now one of the few experts we have in the Amazon that can climb and study leaf level processes in the canopy, an incredible — and incredibly important for climate change research — accomplishment.” 

While climbing and exploring tropical canopies, Ziccardi captures valuable data through the use of MultispeQ.  

Developed at MSU in the lab of David Kramer, Michigan State University Hannah Distinguished Professor in photosynthesis and bioenergetics, MultispeQ is a hand-held device used to measure photosynthesis and environmental parameters in live environments. The device was created with funding from a range of sources including USAID, the Department of Energy and the McKnight Foundation. Ziccardi connected with Kramer during a workshop on MSU’s campus, leading to collaboration that has exceeded initial plans for the MultispeQ.  

“We always envisioned that the MultispeQ would be used to find out how photosynthesis worked in different environments. Leonardo’s project goes beyond our expectations because it takes it (literally) to the next level: telling us how photosynthesis works high in the rain forest canopy,” said Kramer. “What really excites me is that he is using real world data to discover new biology. He’s taken all these measurements under these extreme conditions and is finding stuff that we would never see in the laboratory. Essentially, he’s finding the fundamental biological processes that allow the trees to cope with climate change, and for that we need to go into real environments.” 

In addition to the field research from the MultispeQ, Ziccardi is also benefiting from data collected by satellite. With the original intention to monitor carbon dioxide columns in the atmosphere, a satellite launched by NASA is also quite adept at measuring chlorophyll fluorescence, which aids in seeing physiological activity of plants. These measurements, in conjunction with the field research collected from tree climbing in the Amazon, formed the foundation of Ziccardi’s proposal for the FINESST fellowship.  

Ziccardi credits his time at MSU for preparing him for such a notable opportunity, specifically interdisciplinary collaboration with faculty. In addition to working with Stark and Kramer, Ziccardi’s team includes researchers and faculty at universities in Brazil and across Europe.  


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