Meet Brendan O'Neill: microbial ecologist, researcher, educator, and newest addition to the faculty team at the U-M Biological Station (UMBS). O'Neill will teach a section of General Ecology this summer.
As an undergraduate, O'Neill attended the School of Environment and Public Policy at Indiana University. There, he got a job as a technician in an ecology lab and first discovered his enthusiasm for research. His interests solidified around the relationship between plants and microbial endophytes, and the cascading ecological effects that shape habitats. He continued his masters' research at Cornell University, focusing on Amazonian Dark Earths soil.
"These are land areas left over from pre-historic civilizations in the Central Amazon where societies engineered their environment - especially through soil modifications - to sustain agricultural productivity where it is otherwise extremely difficult. Remnants of these ancient soils remain highly fertile and rich in carbon, and thus provide a model for both carbon sequestration and sustainable land use. My research showed that the microbial communities in these soils were distinct and also much larger than those in the surrounding tropical forests."
Sustaining operations in the Central Amazon proved challenging, so O'Neill ventured closer to home for his doctoral work. At Michigan State University's Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), O'Neill examined how soil microbial communities alter the cycling of carbon and nitrogen in the environment.
"I looked at contrasting long term experiments under different types of agricultural management to understand the mechanisms that drive greenhouse gas emissions from these systems and the underlying genetic mechanisms that drive these processes," O'Neill said. "My research continues at KBS, where I am looking at how soil bacteria process carbon and nitrogen, what their fate will be over time, and how ecological communities both contribute to these functions and are shaped by them."
Although he is new to UMBS, O'Neill is a field station veteran who believes in the power of hands on learning for students. "My own experiences in field courses and at field stations has been so exciting and inspiring - these are the types of opportunities that can shape one's interests for years to come."