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U. forest ecologist wins Packard Fellowship

William Anderegg
William Anderegg
University of Utah College of Science

SALT LAKE CITY — An assistant professor of biology at the University of Utah has received one of 18 Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for his research on the effects of climate change and drought on forests.

“I felt honored, thrilled and surprised all at once,” William Anderegg said in a statement. “I was pretty overwhelmed by the exciting news.”

Packard Fellows receive a five-year, $875,000 grant to pursue research directions of their choosing. The Packard Foundation requires little paperwork connected to the grant, allowing fellows wide latitude to pursue risky and creative research ideas, dubbed “blue-sky thinking” by the foundation.

Anderegg arrived at the U. as an assistant professor in 2015 and studies how droughts affect forests and individual trees. Most recently, he and his colleagues published a study in Nature showing how tree species diversity in forests confers resilience to drought.

“Dr. Anderegg’s pioneering work elegantly combines field measurements with complex mathematical modeling to better predict the response of forests to drought,” Denise Dearing, director of the U.’s School of Biological Sciences, said in the statement. “He is the perfect fit for an award from the Packard Foundation especially in light of the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stating that we have less than 12 years to take action to lessen the most serious effects of climate change.”

Anderegg joins four other Packard Fellows affiliated with the U. The most recent awardee is June Round, an associate professor of pathology, who received her fellowship in 2013.

Each year, the Packard Foundation invites the presidents of 50 universities to nominate two professors each from their institutions. Nominations are reviewed by an advisory panel of distinguished scientists and engineers.

“This is really exciting and different because the funding is not tied to a specific, defined project, as is the case with most other grants,” Anderegg says. “The Packard Foundation really aims to fund individual scholars and to let these scientists pursue whatever creative or high-risk projects that they want to tackle.”

Anderegg is still working out how he’d like to use the funding.

“I want to use part of it to invest in some long-term climate change research that's hard or nearly impossible to fund with traditional grants,” he said, “and also part of it for some near-term but high-risk projects to look at how forests will respond to climate change across the globe.”

The creative latitude afforded by the fellowship embodies the sentiment of the late David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard and the Packard Foundation:

“Take risks,” Packard said. “Ask big questions. Don't be afraid to make mistakes; if you don't make mistakes, you're not reaching far enough.”