One defining feature of Earthshot Labs is our world-class science team. To achieve reforestation at scale, we depend on our team of ecological and data scientists to create the models for biomass projections and risk assessment. Of our twenty-seven full-time employees, five of those are PhD-trained ecosystem scientists. Make that six. Dr. Trevor Keenan just joined Earthshot as our Chief Scientist.
A native of County Longford in Ireland, Dr. Keenan has led an impressive career. He founded the Quantitative Ecosystem Dynamics lab at UC Berkeley, where he won $50 million in research grants. He has published over 100 peer-reviewed papers, with many in the most respected peer-reviewed journals, including Science, Nature, and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2021, he received tenure.
Given such a meteoric trajectory, what compelled Keenan to leave a tenured faculty position for Earthshot? Why is Earthshot’s science considered “deep tech”? And is it true that a pint of Guinness really tastes better in Ireland? Earthshot’s Storyteller Fred Bahnson spoke with Keenan recently to find out.
I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for the past two decades. After getting tenure, something changed, and instead of asking myself what I needed to do to succeed, I started asking myself, what do I want to do?
FB: Was there a moment in your life when you realized you wanted to become a scientist?
TK: I grew up on a remote farm in County Longford, Ireland. My family wasn’t academic. Growing up in an agricultural community, I spent a lot of time outdoors. As I thought about a career, I realized that the natural world was where I wanted to spend my time and energy. At university I studied mathematics, but found that everybody in my class was going to work for the insurance industry. That didn’t appeal to me. I took time to travel and explore the world—New Zealand, South America—and asked myself how I could combine mathematics with a love of nature.
One formative experience was a month-long trip by boat down the Amazon. I boarded in Peru on the Ucayali River, and journeyed on towards, and ultimately all the way down, the Amazon river. As you progress slowly downriver, you see a gradual but dramatic change in terms of human impact on the pristine jungle. Traveling at a slower pace like that on a boat or on foot—it allows you to really live the transition. That trip made a big impression on me and inspired me to understand natural ecosystems.
When I returned home I entered a Masters degree program at University of York called “Mathematics and the Living Environment,” and that’s when the doors opened. I discovered that my quantitative skills could be used for nature.
FB: What did you do before coming to Earthshot?
TK: In the lab I founded at UC Berkeley, we’ve been focused on questions of climate risk to ecosystems, particularly the impact of drought on ecosystem function: how we detect it, how we characterize it via remote sensing, and how we predict what the future holds for ecosystems around the world.
FB: Are other labs working in this area, or was this your unique angle of research?
TK: Many groups are working in this area, but our unique focus was using network data from distributed sensors, merged with satellite observations and theory. A major focus is eddy covariance sensors, which consist of instruments on towers positioned above ecosystems. Those sensors continually measure gas exchange between an ecosystem and the atmosphere. Every ten to twenty seconds they sample the air, and measure wind direction and speed. That data tells you a lot of interesting things: how much carbon is sequestered or released, how energy is exchanged.
Such measurements are being collected at thousands of sites around the world, and some have been in operation for over three decades. My group is one of the few who specializes in synthesizing all this data across the network. We use a lot of big data techniques: machine learning, remote sensing. Also a lot of eco-physiological theory of how ecosystems work at different levels of organization. What’s exciting and unique is that we’re directly measuring the carbon cycle of ecosystems. This is the only way to measure the whole ecosystem carbon cycle at this scale.
Many groups are working in this area, but our unique focus was using network data from distributed sensors, merged with satellite observations and theory...What’s exciting and unique is that we’re directly measuring the carbon cycle of ecosystems. This is the only way to measure the whole ecosystem carbon cycle at this scale.
FB: You took leave from a tenured faculty position at a Tier 1 research university. That’s a cushy job by any standard, and taking a break from academia could imperil your career. What made you come to Earthshot?
TK: Things were going great at UC Berkeley. I got tenure in 2021, and have been funded through grants awarded over $50 million, with $7 million as lead PI. I employ a half-dozen postdocs and support four grad students and a small army of undergrads. We have a great group that I really enjoy working with. But I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for the past two decades. After getting tenure, something changed, and instead of asking myself what I needed to do to succeed, I started asking myself, what do I want to do?
One growing frustration was that although we publish high-quality research, it is hard to gauge the impact of those publications beyond the academy. I felt a strong call to do research that has an impact on how society views nature. I had watched the emerging field of Natural Climate Solutions closely over the past few years. Until recently that field was a small sector of society. Now it’s really grown. Academia, governments, corporations, start-ups, investors—a lot of people are thinking now about how to use nature-based solutions to slow the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s very exciting. This is the first time the science I’m doing is directly translatable to real world applications to slow climate change.
FB: Given your credentials, you could have gone to work for any company working on nature-based solutions. Why Earthshot Labs?
TK: Integrity, for one. Earthshot is focused on developing the highest integrity, highest quality projects in ecosystem restoration. And, of course, the value placed on science. The fact that Earthshot has such a large science team is testimony to how they value science. It’s unparalleled, really. I profiled every company working in the space and have not found a single example that comes close. Other climate tech companies focused on ecological restoration don’t employ PhD level scientists to this degree. That’s the clearest sign that Earthshot is laser focused on using the best available science to enable effective natural climate solutions.
Earthshot is focused on restoring ecosystems to their native state. For the vast majority of carbon projects that exist, that has not been the case. It’s been monocultures of fast-growing species with the largest carbon uptake. Planting native trees is super important as a matter of ecosystem resilience. What happens when you plant a bunch of exotic trees? Typically they don’t survive. Monocultures don’t have positive impacts on biodiversity. I felt called to help Earthshot restore nature. That felt like a really valuable use of my energy and time.
I was also impressed by the brilliance and talent of the people involved in Earthshot. This makes it a really exciting team to work with. I put that responsibility on the shoulders of the founders Troy and Patrick who have attracted a highly skilled, impassioned, and engaging group of people.
FB: What does the Earthshot science team do?
TK: Ecosystems are complex. They’re non-linear, highly-interconnected organisms. It really requires a deep understanding of the science of ecosystems to understand what happens when we mess with them. The science team is focused on developing techniques to measure what we’re doing. We predict outcomes for specific interventions, how to preserve and measure post-intervention, and how to quantify the risk to ecosystems in the future as the climate changes. We also figure out new techniques for leveraging data from satellite remote sensing networks, enabling us to scale our work on any project site around the world.
We think of our work as deep tech. Unlike a standard tech company that uses existing science or technology, deep tech companies push the boundaries of science itself. We need to push those boundaries if we’re going to restore ecosystems at a planetary scale. This is one of the most interesting aspects for me, as the questions and needs posed by natural climate solutions inspire us to advance science in ways that would not have been possible otherwise.
Now the world is recognizing the urgent need to do ecological restoration at scale, for hundreds of thousands of hectares in almost all ecosystems worldwide. This is required by the Paris Agreements to meet our net zero goals, and requires a new way of thinking, and new science.
FB: Science is inherently reductionist. Given Earthshot’s goal of planetary scale restoration, how do you get past the reductionist approach and think more holistically about restoration at scale?
TK: Scientists are often natural splitters. We subdivide and subdivide again to try to understand processes in detail. This often leads to a focus on minutia, and reductionist thinking. At the other end of the spectrum you have lumpers, those who aggregate information to make generalizations. Historically, the area of restoration has been more focused on the idiosyncrasies of specific projects, because it has not yet been tried at scale. Now the world is recognizing the urgent need to do ecological restoration at scale, for hundreds of thousands of hectares in almost all ecosystems worldwide. This is required by the Paris Agreements to meet our net zero goals, and requires a new way of thinking, and new science.
What I like about this work is that it takes all the tools we’ve developed over the past few decades and asks different questions of them. Through reframing the questions, we have to rethink our approach. So it’s quite exciting. You can take a really mature field like ecosystem science and suddenly realize how much more maturing it has to do. So I’m hoping that not only will we advance ecosystem restoration at scale, but we’ll discover a lot about science that matters in the process.
FB: OK, very important question: is a pint of Guinness really better in Ireland?
TK: Guinness not only tastes better in a pub in Ireland, but it’s an entirely different beverage. It’s the only beer I drink when I’m home, but I never drink it abroad. Now I’m getting homesick!
FB: What does your life look like outside of science?
TK: My extracurriculars include a weekly pick-up soccer game, climbing (though kids have admittedly put a serious pause on that) and chasing two toddlers around the neighborhood. I’m an avid bike commuter, to the extent that I was thirty-eight before I owned my first car, and an outdoor enthusiast. I actually spent a lot of my career working from picnic tables in city parks. I also play a mean didgeridoo, and played in a few bands back in the day.
FB: If you could visit one Earthshot field site, where would you go?
TK: My wife and I are expecting a baby in April, so my travel is limited, but if Madre de Dios [in Peru] gets off the ground, that would be amazing to visit. I’d love to be there when we roll out that project and start the process of transforming a desolate area of the Amazon destroyed by gold mining back to its natural pristine state.