Casey Schmidt, Ph.D., is an assistant research professor of biogeochemistry at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, NV. He specializes in ecological engineering, which is a field of study that combines elements of engineering, ecology and design to help solve environmental problems. Casey holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in soil and water science from the University of Florida, and a B.S. in biology from the University of Washington. He has been a member of the DRI community since 2013, when he moved to Reno with his wife and twin daughters. At present, Casey works remotely from his home on Bainbridge Island, WA. In his free time, he enjoys photography and scuba diving.
DRI: What do you study here at DRI?
CS: I have two main hats that I wear: one of those hats is that of a soil scientist. I’m a little biased, but I think that soils are at the center of ecosystems. Water travels through, and is altered by, soils before it travels into rivers and lakes. Soils are biological hotspots and they determine plant growth and health. So, one of the hats that I wear looks at soil fertility from an agricultural perspective. I’m working on projects in forestry where I look at the influence on plant health of amending soils with a type of charcoal material called biochar.
The other main hat that I wear is that of an ecological engineer. Ecological engineers work on projects like stream restoration, wetland restoration and bioremediation, where we develop methods for using nature’s processes in beneficial ways. When you restore a wetland along a stream, you’re going to improve the water quality downstream, because the soils and the plants in that wetland are going to take in sediments and nutrients using natural processes.
DRI: Can you tell us about an environmental problem that you are working to solve?
CS: One of the big areas that I work on is in bioremediation, which is where you sort of trick bacteria into doing what you want them to do by creating conditions for certain organisms to thrive. A lot of my projects are in agricultural areas, where we’re using bacteria to remove nitrogen that is added to the environment in the form of nitrogen fertilizer.
One of these projects takes place in Florida, where agricultural water is being discharged into freshwater springs. These freshwater springs are beautiful. They’re huge, with crystal clear water. They’re a big, important resource for the community, but nitrogen concentrations have been going up from land use changes, and algal blooms are reducing clarity and choking out native plants.
So, I’ve put in bioremediation systems in agricultural areas and urban watersheds around these springs that use a microbial process to consume nitrate. The nitrate is our pollutant and it is converted to an innocuous by-product. But the process is limited by carbon, so, what we do is bury trenches of sawdust to give the bacteria the carbon that they need. I put in one system almost 10 years ago, and it’s still functioning very well. Now I have projects to really continue on that work and expand on that work.
What I was drawn to about this is that it’s practical. You know, it’s sawdust. It’s something that landowners can use, and can put in, and utilize. So, my work is really applied. It’s a little less theoretical, but it’s focused on developing large-scale methods capable of tackling this problem in a meaningful way.
DRI: What has been your most memorable day on the job?
CS: I have great days on the job. I do a lot of fieldwork and lab work, so I’m not always in the office in front of the computer, although that’s a big part of what I do. I have days where I just think, “man, I’m getting paid to do this.” It’s hard work, for sure, and in demanding environments, but I really enjoy it.
One of my projects takes place in the Indian River Lagoon in Florida, which is an area with incredible species diversity. Oyster populations have really declined there, like they’ve declined worldwide. But what we’ve found is that oysters themselves are ecological engineers. They’re filter feeders, so they’re constantly pumping in water, filtering it, and sometimes removing sediments and nutrients that are of a concern. There’s a lady that I collaborate with from the University of Central Florida who has been restoring reefs in one part of the Indian River Lagoon for almost 10 years now. I’m interested in the water quality benefits of these oyster reefs and the ecosystem they create, because they can create the same sort of environment that I’m creating with the bioremediation systems.
So, when we go out into the Indian River Lagoon, we take soil cores in the oyster reefs, which is very difficult. Oysters are sharp and hard to dig through. But, we’ll be standing there, and there’ll be dolphins swimming by. Or, we’ll be getting into the boat and there’ll be manatees that we can feed lettuce to. We identify all of the birds that we see. We caught a sting ray one day. It’s a super cool environment to work in. Very, very interesting. That’s one example of a really cool day at the office.
DRI: How did you end up here at DRI?
CS: I went to the University of Washington and got my bachelors in biology, and then I minored in fisheries and aquatic sciences. I got really interested in water at that point. I did an internship in a lab of civil and environmental engineering, so that’s what got me into the engineering world. Then I went to University of Florida and got my degrees in soil and water sciences. I finished my Ph.D. in Florida, did a postdoc, and then started applying for jobs. I wanted to come back out west. Really, the main reason that I ended up at DRI was because they wrote a job description that was right up my alley. I think it was written specifically for an ecological engineer, so it was really easy to write the application describing my passion for this subject. I came out, talked about my bioremediation projects and so on, and that’s what got me out here.