Iowa State’s Schulte Moore named 2021 MacArthur Fellow

Lisa Schulte Moore standing in front of a farm field featuring native strips of prairie plants

Lisa Schulte Moore’s research team has produced numerous advancements in the understanding and management of native prairie on agricultural landscapes that show far-reaching environmental benefits. Schulte Moore was named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. Image courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa – Lisa Schulte Moore, a professor of natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State University, has been named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. The prestigious awards, sometimes called “genius grants,” identify scientists, artists, entrepreneurs and others who have demonstrated exceptional creativity and who show promise for important future advances.

Schulte Moore is the first ISU faculty member to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. She's conducted groundbreaking research as a landscape ecologist working closely with farmers to build more sustainable and resilient agricultural systems. She pushes the boundaries of her field by incorporating other disciplines traditionally thought of as beyond the scope of ecology – economics, engineering and sociology, for instance – to address critical challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, water quality and rural depopulation.

“I think of my work as putting together a puzzle, and I’m always looking for the missing puzzle piece,” she said. “Where do I have to go or what do I have to learn to get the next piece? I’ve found that sometimes you have to build and paint the puzzle piece yourself, and that’s part of the fun of science.”

“Dr. Schulte Moore represents the best of Iowa State University. Her selection for the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship is an extraordinary endorsement of her promising research and scholarly excellence in agriculture, ecology, forestry and human-landscape interactions,” said Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen. “She is a true land-grant champion. Dr. Schulte Moore recognizes the value of incorporating diverse disciplines to her research in order to address society’s urgent and complex global challenges.”

About Schulte Moore’s research

Schulte Moore, a first-generation college student in her family, received a bachelor’s of science degree from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire in 1993, a master’s of science from the University of Minnesota at Duluth and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She joined the faculty at Iowa State University in 2003.

Much of her research addresses the integration of native perennial prairie plants into agricultural systems to support new markets and to protect water quality, soil and wildlife habitat. She’s published more than 100 scientific and educational articles in leading journals such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ecology and Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment.

Schulte Moore’s instrumental role in the prairie STRIPS research team has produced numerous advancements in the understanding and management of native prairie on agricultural landscapes that show far-reaching environmental benefits. Conventional corn and soybean farming can deplete topsoil, and nutrient runoff from agricultural fields can pollute waterways and contribute to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. But she and her colleagues have shown that prairie strips can reduce soil loss from nearby farm fields by 95% and nitrogen and phosphorous runoff by 70-80% by putting more roots in the ground to hold soil and nutrients in place.

Schulte Moore has contributed to numerous outreach efforts to encourage the adoption of prairie strips by farmers and landowners, and she said their input has been essential to the program’s success. Prairie strips are now in use in 14 states on over 115,000 acres of cropland. The federal Conservation Reserve Program recognized prairie strips as a conservation practice eligible for government financial support for the first time following the 2018 Farm Bill. USDA sought input from Schulte Moore and other ISU personnel when developing policies to implement prairie strips under the law.

Schulte Moore also is the lead developer of the People In Ecosystems Watershed Integration (PEWI), a computer simulation that shows how land use practices impact the soil, water, agricultural production and wildlife habitat. And she leads the Consortium for Cultivating Human and Natural regenerative Enterprise (C-CHANGE), which received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop new value chains for U.S. farmers, particularly the generation of renewable natural gas using biomass from perennial grasses. She said this kind of research, developing new markets and creating new incentives for producers to establish diverse perennial vegetation on farms, will form the backbone of her future research.  

“I’m working to show the full value of the Midwest’s native ecosystems and figure out how to turn it into financial value for farmers and rural communities,” she said.

The MacArthur Fellowship

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced 25 MacArthur Fellows for 2021 on Tuesday. Schulte Moore will receive a $625,000, no-strings-attached award as part of the fellowship as an investment in the potential of her work.

The foundation selects fellows that demonstrate exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments and the potential for the fellowship to facilitate future creative work.

Nominees are brought to the program's attention through a constantly changing pool of invited external nominators chosen from as broad a range of fields and areas of interest as possible, according to the foundation’s website. Nominations are evaluated by an independent selection committee composed of about a dozen leaders in the arts, sciences, humanities professions, and for-profit and nonprofit communities. Nominators, evaluators and selectors all serve anonymously, and their correspondence is kept confidential to avoid outside influence of the selection process.

Although the fellowship is an individual recognition, Schulte Moore credits the collaborative atmosphere at Iowa State as an essential element of her success.

“My work isn’t possible without great teammates,” she said. “I’m truly honored and humbled by this award, but I can’t do my work without the help and expertise of many people at Iowa State and beyond.”