EcoPress

Memorial tribute to Dr. Vern Cole brings NREL’s rich history to the forefront

by Jocelyn Lavallee

NREL hosted a memorial tribute to Dr. C. Vernon Cole on January 14, 2014. The speakers at the event included: Dr. Gene Kelly, Dr. Bob Woodmansee, Dr. Gary Peterson, Dr. Eldor Paul, Dr. John Stewart, Dr. Dave Swift, Dr. Bob Heil, Dr. John Moore, Dr. Dennis Ojima, Dr. Ron Follett, Dr. Keith Paustian, Dr. Steve Huffman, Dave Rosgen (son-in-law), Dave Cole (son), and Jea Cole (wife). The event was recorded and video of the event can be viewed here.

When I was looking at graduate programs, I was drawn to the NREL at CSU in part because of its amazing history. I knew that some of the biggest names in soil and ecosystem science were here (a post doc in my lab at the time saw who I’d be working with and told me that “people line up out the door to see these scientists give talks”), and I knew that a lot of ground-breaking work had come out of this place. But until recently, a lot of those early scientists and a lot of their work seemed to be an abstraction; I knew they had been here, but I never heard about them or their work first-hand. That all changed when the friends and family of Dr. Vern Cole organized a tribute celebrating his achievements as a scientist, a friend, and a family man. The long list of speakers included several big names in ecosystem science, and as they told stories of working with Dr. Cole, NREL’s outstanding history became increasingly clear.

First, a little bit about Dr. Cole.

Vern Cole was an astonishingly accomplished scientist. During his fruitful career, he published over 70 articles in peer-reviewed journals, one of which has been cited almost 5,000 times. His expertise in soil chemistry and his ability to apply his knowledge to ecosystem-scale questions made him instrumental to the development of the fields of ecosystem science and systems ecology. He was one of the first scientists to successfully cross the boundary between soil chemistry and ecosystem modeling, setting a precedent for the interdisciplinary work that is a tenet of ecosystem science today. Listening to his colleagues speak about Dr. Cole’s contributions to our current understanding of biogeochemical cycling and ecosystem function, it rang true that my fellow graduate students and I were “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Citation report from Web of Science(TM) for COLE, CV.

Citation report from Web of Science(TM) for COLE, CV.

Dr. Cole began working with scientists at the NREL in the early 70s at a time when the ideas behind ecosystem science were just taking root. Many scientists at NREL, Dr. Cole included, were stepping outside of narrow disciplinary boundaries to work together and apply their knowledge in unprecedented ways. Ecologists began talking to agronomers, soil scientists began talking to modelers, and new questions and new methods emerged as a result. A shining example of this is the grassland phosphorus model that Dr. Cole worked closely with Dr. George Innis and Dr. John Stewart to develop. These collaborations were not without their ups and downs, and the tribute to Dr. Cole included a lot of great anecdotes to that effect.

NREL Staff circa 1975, about the time when Dr. Cole began collaborating with them. Left to Right top row: Norm French, Jim Gibson, George Van Dyne, Melvin Dyer Front Row: Freeman Smith, George Innis accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NREL_Staff_circa_1975.JPG

NREL Staff circa 1975, about the time when Dr. Cole began collaborating with them.
Left to Right top row: Norm French, Jim Gibson, George Van Dyne, Melvin Dyer
Front Row: Freeman Smith, George Innis
accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NREL_Staff_circa_1975.JPG

Hearing firsthand stories about these scientific conquests brought an entirely new human element to a history that, previously, I had only seen through journal articles. It was fascinating, heartwarming, and deeply inspiring.

We here at EcoPress think that there is a lot to say about NREL’s past. Seeing the tribute and talking to some of the “old-timers” reminded us that there are a lot of parallels between what went on back then and what we are trying to do now. There’s a lot to be learned from their experiences, and there’s a lot that we want to ask them. That’s why we’ll soon be starting a theme centered around NREL’s history. We want to explore some of the very first interdisciplinary collaborations and large-scale projects, and the scientists behind them.

Have anything you want to hear about? Have a question for an NREL “old-timer”? Let us know in the comments section!

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