Money does not grow on trees, but a UCSB graduate student recently plucked a scholarship from soil.

Noah Fierer received the Francis and Evelyn Clark Soil Biology Scholarship for his study in microorganisms in soil and the way they control nutrients and soil fertility. The $2,000 cash prize is given by the Soil Science Society of America, which recognizes the importance of soil biology in ecosystems.

“Microorganisms are important in our lives,” Fierer said. “They affect air quality and plants. But we don’t understand them very well.”

The scientific community has only been able to identify one-tenth of one percent of all organisms that live in soil, according to Josh Schimel, a professor of ecosystem ecology, in the Dept. of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, and Fierer’s adviser. “Noah focused on trying to understand what controls the function of the whole community rather than on the organisms themselves,” he said.

The study of microbial communities is critical for the understanding of its function in the biosphere, Schimel said.

“You can run an earth system without plants and animals, but not without microbes,” he said.

Schimel said he nominated Fierer for the award because of his excellence in scholarship and leadership in the study of microbial communities.

“Noah is a great guy and a really talented scientist,” Schimel said. “He is fearless about picking up new techniques and taking advantage of [them].”

Schimel believes that understanding ecology and microbes is important to good science. “Noah does this easily,” he said.

Fierer is a student in Schimel’s lab, and has been at UCSB since 1997. His work has appeared in numerous scientific publications.

This week Fierer will receive his Ph.D. on how communities of microorganisms in soil relate to nutrient cycling in soil. He will continue his postdoctoral research at UCSB.

“I hope to give people a better appreciation for dirt,” Fierer said.