Kate Ballantine

Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

Spend five minutes with Kate Ballantine and you’ll see she’s an optimist to the core. During the last two centuries, earth’s wetlands have suffered deforestation, pollution, urban growth, damming and more – all of which have caused damage that can take hundreds of years to repair. Undaunted, Kate aims to reverse ecosystem degradation, restore healthy wetlands, and identify best practices in preservation and restoration. 

Kate’s scholarship concerns the biogeochemical processes that speed ecosystem restoration. Through fieldwork in the cranberry bogs of Cape Cod, the wilds of Switzerland, and retired farmlands of western New York, Kate uses meticulous time- and labor-intensive experiments to identify effective soil amendment strategies for hastening wetland recovery. Her discoveries regarding carbon sequestration and denitrification, the process of removing excess nitrogen from wetland habitats, are particularly significant. Kate’s findings show how biochar, a charcoal-like substance, acts as a carbon store to prevent carbon dioxide release as wetland vegetation decays, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient leaching.

Kate’s research is remarkable in its experimental precision and attention to context and trade-offs. Her work reveals why and when some soil amendments are more effective than others due to site-specific conditions, such as elevation, proximity to active farmland, and episodic flooding cycles. She aims to maximize outcomes by stabilizing erosion, replenishing nutrients, and aiding plant regeneration, while mitigating the potential for these gains to increase greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, Kate has advocated for improvements in current restoration practices, which often remove topsoil, destroy existing vegetation, and accelerate invasive species proliferation. More broadly, Kate’s work balances best-practices with available resources and the needs of local communities. As such, Kate’s research informs farming practices, urban development policy, federal land-use policy, and global collaboration.

As a scholar, Kate embodies key philosophical principles of restoration ecology: she seeks the highest level of ecosystem recovery through clear, well-defined objectives, while engaging and inspiring stakeholders to promote social-ecological resilience. In recognition of her innovations, Clean Water Action awarded Kate the Environmental Ground-Breaker award for contributions to restoration ecology, research, education, and outreach. Kate’s findings have been published in the most prestigious journals in her field, including Nature. She has received over 20 grants from highly competitive local, national and international organizations, including the Mellon Foundation, National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Water Action, the Earth Microbiome Institute, and People’s Bank. Most recently, Kate and her colleagues secured a $10 million dollar grant from the U.S. Dept of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to restore wetlands in Massachusetts using innovations discovered through Kate’s research. 

While Kate’s contributions are recognized nationally and internationally, one of her most prized restoration projects is right here on campus. Kate is the founding director of Mount Holyoke’s Restoration Ecology Program. If you’ve walked around Upper Lake recently, you will have seen the new boardwalk, wildlife cameras, and observation platforms where visitors can enjoy Mount Holyoke’s natural resources. For students engaged in Project Stream, this site is an outdoor classroom and active laboratory where they are studying biogeochemical processes and restoring Mount Holyoke’s wetland ecosystems. Under Kate’s direction, REP has contributed significantly to preserving and transforming Mount Holyoke’s campus and inspired us to leverage our rural campus as one of our greatest assets and opportunities. 

In addition to her outstanding scholarship, Kate is a talented and beloved teacher. She can often be found, even on the rainiest of days, mucking about campus with a troop of enthusiastic student researchers by her side. Kate’s students rave about her skills as a lecturer and her remarkable ability to blend “academic knowledge with embodied and experiential knowledge.” One student aptly noted that Kate’s “value as a teacher does not lie in her lesson plans or her PowerPoint slides, but instead in her ability to inspire and encourage students in a way that has a lasting impact which extends far beyond the classroom.”

Through her leadership, expertise, vision, enthusiasm, and commitment to our community, Kate is, quite literally, a force of nature. We are delighted to present her with this year’s Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship.