Position: Professor, Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Waikato.
Field: Controlling nitrogen losses from land.
Louis Schipper has been interested in science since he was a child. His parents worked in Australia, New Zealand and Sāmoa, exposing Louis to different environments and a multitude of places and people to learn from, so it was not surprising that Louis decided to study science and went to the University of Waikato to do so.
While Louis was intrigued by science in general, microbiology and chemistry interested him in particular. Louis felt naturally at home with the logical framework that chemistry provided to understand such complex areas like microbial ecology.
After completing his master’s degree, Louis commenced a 2-week job at the Crown research institute Forest Research, which turned into a PhD project. He was looking at the special organic soils found in riparian wetlands (wetlands close to streams or lakes) and their ability to protect the stream quality by removing nitrate from the groundwater.
He realised that, in many places, the natural filtering system of riparian wetlands had become dysfunctional particularly when organic material had been lost from the soil. The organic material is used by microorganisms to convert dissolved nitrate to nitrogen gases (a natural component of the atmosphere).
Upon further investigations, Louis figured that, by putting organic material back into the soil (Louis is using wood chips), you can restore the nitrate removal functions of the soil quite effectively. He devised ‘denitrification walls’ that remove virtually all of the nitrogen from the water before it reaches surface waters. The denitrification walls are used in so-called non-point source systems, which just means that there is no single entry point of nitrate-rich water to surface waters. However, in his work, Louis also deals with point source systems, for example, domestic effluent that is collected and run through denitrification beds, which operate under the same principles as denitrification walls.
Louis co-leads a research team within the University of Waikato’s Environmental Research Institute. The team collaborates on a variety of projects covering carbon exchange and budgets in pastures and wetlands. Their focus is to use carbon budgets as an indicator of ecosystem sustainability and to identify ways in which to increase soil carbon content.
The creative side of science
Louis enjoys both the challenging and the creative aspects of science. Denitrification beds – a creative approach explains how Louis took a creative leap as a young scientist. As a result, denitrification beds are now in use all over the world. In the video Creativity and science, Louis discusses creativity and the importance of understanding your subject really, really well.
Louis also uses another medium for creatively expressing his science research – cakes! Research cakes – making the world sweeter with science – challenges scientists to describe their research via a decorated cake. Whenever one of Louis' students or colleagues makes a discovery or publishes a paper, they are encouraged to explain it with a cake. It's a fun, edible and clever way communicate findings.
This article is based on information current in 2009, but updated in 2013 and 2017.