New faculty profile: Susanne Wiesner

Susanne Wiesner
Assistant Professor | Plant and Earth Science
UW–River Falls | start date Aug. 2022

What is your hometown?
I grew up in Eastern Germany, behind the wall. I was four years old when it fell, but I didn’t learn about it until I entered school. I spent most of my childhood in a small village called Diensdorf-Radlow.

What is your educational and professional background, including your previous position?
I received a master’s degree in Hydrology from the Technische Universität Dresden. Then I worked in Panama with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Universität Potsdam. In 2014, I started my PhD in Biology, working on energy and carbon dynamics of drought disturbed longleaf pine ecosystems. Following my PhD, I moved to Madison to work on a postdoctoral fellowship with the US Dairy Forage Research Center and the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UW–Madison. Before starting my faculty position, I was a postdoctoral fellow with the Dairy Innovation Hub at UW–Madison, working on agricultural sustainability with the Department of Biological Systems Engineering.

How did you get into your field of research?
I did not grow up thinking I wanted to be a scientist. Initially I wanted to be a graphic designer or artist, but I chose Hydrology as my major because I was good at math, and I had an affinity for water. However, after receiving my MS, I realized that I did not want to be an engineer because at the time, hydrological structures, like dams, were quite disruptive for ecological systems. I knew I wanted to have a positive impact on nature. When I was looking for a PhD program, I started reaching out to professors in the United States, which led me to Dr. Greg Starr at the University of Alabama, where I worked on carbon and energy dynamics of three different longleaf pine savannas.

What are the goals of your current research program?
The main goal of my research program is to understand what it means to be a sustainable farm or farm cooperative. To me that implies more than just offsetting greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering carbon. My research includes a holistic view on resource conservation, including water and nutrients, but also thermodynamic and economic stability. Over the course of a few centuries agricultural practices have become more efficient, resulting in large increases in yield. However, we often forget that these local efficiency improvements did not happen in a vacuum, but were the result of external factors, such as equipment improvements, the use of fertilizer and pesticides, and decreases in agricultural crop diversity, in addition to genetic advances.

New farming technologies might seem more efficient in a local sense, but when we take all steps into account, what we often find is quite the opposite. We have learned from thousands of years of successful indigenous farming practices that crop diversity is key for climate resilience. My research seeks to implement this wisdom in modern farming practices, focusing on the natural defense mechanisms of agricultural ecosystems. This can benefit our Wisconsin dairy farmers by reducing input costs and potential climate threats.

What attracted you to UW–River Falls and the Dairy Innovation Hub?
My department and its people attracted me to UW–River Falls. I feel so lucky I can work in a healthy and supportive academic environment. I worked with the Hub during my postdoctoral fellowship and I really enjoyed the community and close relationships between farmers, consultants, stakeholders, students, and other academics and staff.

What was your first visit to campus like?
My first visit was in the midst of winter, so I did not get to see a lot. However, the plant and earth science faculty, staff and students made me feel welcome right away.

One of Wiesner’s current projects is working to establish a baseline greenhouse gas budget and climate resilience target for the UW–River Falls Mann Valley Farm. The goal of this project is to optimize measurement strategies for GHG accounting within fields and barns, and to compare measurements with modeled values. Photo by Pat Deninger/UW–River Falls

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I have a couple of things on my list that I try to weave into my classes. First, I stress how important it is to think about a problem as part of a system and not in isolation, because everything is connected. Second, I try to implement thermodynamic laws and other basic scientific concepts. If my students truly understand the basic principles of nature, they can derive the rest themselves. Finally, I try to spark curiosity in my students, because to me if you’re curious, you’ll do the work to feed that urge.

Does your work relate to the Wisconsin Idea?
The Wisconsin Idea resonates with me in many ways. For example, in Germany college education was more accessible. To me, education should not have a price tag. More education means more ideas and innovation, which would benefit the people, governments, as well as the economies. Furthermore, as far as I understand it, part of the Wisconsin Idea has its roots in German philosophy, which really fascinates me. I feel strongly that everyone should have the same access to knowledge and innovation. I gladly assist in providing this service to the people of Wisconsin and beyond, which includes working directly with producers, and communities via public outreach events, or by taking part in engaging the youth.