NAS Prize-Winner Elizabeth Ainsworth

By Jacob Morrow-Spitzer

Each year the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) awards distinguished scientists with funded prizes to promote and recognize their extraordinary scientific achievements. In January, 18 of the nation’s top researchers were announced as this year’s winners in the fields of physical, biological, and medical sciences. Notably, Elizabeth Ainsworth (ΦBK, UCLA) was awarded this year’s prestigious NAS Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences for her work on the effects of climate change on some of the world’s most important crops, as well as for her advocacy work in teaching and promoting the sciences to non-traditional scientific communities. 

Since graduate school, Ainsworth says she has recognized the pressing nature of climate change and the pivotal role of scientists to understand its effects on our everyday environment, and for much of her career her research has focused on the effects of rising pollution in the atmosphere on food sources. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s in biology from UCLA, she attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she received her Ph.D. in crop science. After a post-doctorate in Germany, Ainsworth began her current work as a biologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. She is also an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois.

At the Agricultural Research Service (ARS)—the Department of Agriculture’s chief in-house research agency—Ainsworth works alongside scientists in “finding solutions to agricultural problems that affect Americans every day from field to table.” Additionally, the ARS works to maintain a safe, nutritional, and profitable American agricultural society. 

Ainsworth’s award-winning study examined the effect of rising pollution in the atmosphere on worldwide staple crops. At her lab in Urbana, she tested the changing production levels of soybean and maize, crops both integral to the economy of Illinois and to the world as a whole (soybean is the most widely grown oilseed in the world, while maize is the most harvested cereal). Since the 1950s, Ainsworth explains, scientists have been measuring important gasses, including ozone concentrations, in our atmosphere. However, the effects of these gaseous changes on some of our most important agricultural crops were previously not entirely clear. Now, the results of her study, according to the NAS website, “revealed that a large portion of the United States harvest of corn and soybean was lost due to ozone pollution over the past 20 years.” 

Additionally, Ainsworth notes that quantifying the impacts of the shifts in greenhouse gas levels on agricultural products can help farmers and growers to adjust their practices to prepare for and adapt to the changing environment. Recognizing a baseline in crop production will help scientists in the future understand the impact of climate change on these critical food products. 

Outside of the lab, Ainsworth has also positioned herself as an advocate for the sciences for people of all ages. She leads a summer camp called Pollen Power, which is aimed at encouraging middle school-aged girls to become interested in science. With funding from the Carl Woese Institute for Genomic Biology on UI’s campus, Ainsworth—who has led the camp for six years—is able to reach a community of girls that are often overlooked in sciences and introduce the scientific concepts of climate change from a young age, she explained. At the other end of the age spectrum, she also teaches biological agriculture classes to retired adults through the Osher Life Long Learning Institute. Like school age girls, many retirees are overlooked in science education and, Ainsworth adds, often learned much different scientific facts—in biology in particular—in their school days.

However, in a time of friction between American political leaders and climate researchers, Ainsworth believes that educating groups who often would not see themselves as scientists is a key approach to tackling the steadily looming issues of climate change. “A better understanding of the physical nature of [climate change] is something we can do through education,” she said. “It must be depoliticized.” 

The NAS Prize in Food and Agricultural Sciences, which was created in 2016 as a way to recognize and support scientists whose research has the potential to improve our global food system, comes with both high prestige and a hefty grant of $100,000. To learn more about the other NAS Prizes see the list of this year’s recipients.

Jacob Morrow-Spitzer is a recent graduate of Tulane University, where he majored in History and Jewish Studies and minored in Mathematics. He was inducted into the Alpha of Louisiana chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in May of 2018. He will begin his Ph.D. in History in the fall.