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Elizabeth Sulzman Profile

Elizabeth Sulzman died unexpectedly on June 10, 2007. An award-winning professor and scientist in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, she is remembered for her enthusiasm for teaching and research. The following is a tribute to the life she brought to her work at Oregon State University.

Soils live and breathe, and scientists around the world have begun to measure the carbon in the exhaled breath of forest soil.

Elizabeth Sulzman, a soil scientist at Oregon State University, studied soil beneath the towering forests of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Her work was vital to the understanding of carbon dynamics, the only research of its kind being conducted in conifer forests. There she found that the conifer needles that rain down onto the forest floor stimulate soil microbes to digest both the newly added carbon in the needles and the older stores of carbon in the soil. That means that these soils are storing less carbon than previously thought and exhaling more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“It goes against conventional wisdom,” said Sulzman, who worked with a team of scientists at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest, two hours southeast of the Corvallis campus. “These findings are causing us to rethink our understanding of soil biology and carbon sequestration.”

If Sulzman’s laboratory was in a mountain forest, her classroom was sometimes in a pit. A 2006 recipient of OSU’s Faculty Teaching Excellence Award, Sulzman encouraged her students to get their hands dirty. She introduced them to the colors, textures, history, and life that are visible in layers of soil. In soil pits dug especially for OSU’s soils classes, Sulzman’s students would roll clay noodles with their hands, rub mud in their palms, and match a rainbow of earth tones to a Munsell soil color chart. Eventually a history of the landscape above would emerge from the layers of soil below.

“Elizabeth brought soil science to life for her students,” said Russ Karow, head of OSU Crop and Soil Sciences Department. “Her collegiality, dynamic personality, and infectious enthusiasm for active learning and scientific inquiry were her hallmarks.”

From a childhood of tumbling rocks in the basement and dreaming of becoming “Jaquette Cousteau,” Sulzman had always been in love with the outdoors. She worked for a time with the Peace Corps in the Central African Republic, helping villagers build a dam.

“It was quite a challenge,” Sulzman recalled. “I had no knowledge of the local trade language and the people I worked with had little knowledge of engineering or hydrology.” Yet, by the end of her stay, Sulzman and the villagers had completed 80 ponds to provide a source of protein for the people in the area.

Sulzman enlivened her class lectures with stories from Africa, the Andrews forest, and many other places where she had worked and studied soils. It was in Africa where she learned the value of using creative, unorthodox ways of communicating ideas that she applied to her university teaching.

For example, rather than the traditional recitation class where students work on quantitative assignments and exams, Sulzman designed a curriculum that was lively and interactive. It was not unusual to see a rousing game of Pictionary going on in Sulzman’s class, as students went to all lengths to get team members to say the word “actinomycetes” from several quickly drawn lines and some squiggles.

“My goal as a teacher is to make my courses challenging, useful, and enjoyable,” said Sulzman. Even in her largest classes, she knew all her students by name. “I know that the impact I have on students will influence their long-term goals and attitudes, and I take that challenge very seriously.”