UA Faculty Member Earns White House-Approved Award

UA Faculty Member Earns White House-Approved Award

By La Monica Everett-HaynesUniversity Communications
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Julio Betancourt
Julio Betancourt

Julio Betancourt, a U.S. Geological Survey senior scientist based at The University of Arizona, was among the scientists who helped alert the public about the potential impact of buffelgrass in the Sonoran Desert. This came in 2004 after the first buffelgrass fire occurred in the Tucson area. Buffelgrass is a highly invasive and highly flammable species of grass that has been killing native plants in the Sonoran Desert.

By then, Betancourt, also a UA adjunct professor in several departments, had already spent nearly 30 years studying climate variability and the effects that such environmental shifts have on ecosystems and watersheds.

For his work, Betancourt has received the 2008 Meritorious Senior Professionals award, which recognizes individuals in senior ranks for their leadership and a high level of involvement in their respective fields.

Federal agency administrators nominate individuals for the Presidential Rank Award and a panel of citizens then reviews the nominations. At the end of the selection process, the U.S. president approves the awards.

"I was surprised and very appreciative of the recognition," said Betancourt, who teaches in the UA geosciences department, the geography and regional development department, the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, Office of Arid Land Studies and the School of Natural Resources.

"I was pretty much blown away by it. When you receive an award like this, you look at your career and realize that this is something you only get once," he said.

The high-level federal award goes to individuals who are considered "strong leaders" in their field and who are also committed to public service, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's Web site noted.

The awards are "prestigious and unique" and they also recognize "outstanding leadership and long-term accomplishments," a joint U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Department of the Interior release noted.

Betancourt, who has published more than 100 scientific papers, also helped established the USA National Phenology Network located at the UA, which involves federal agencies, scientists, community members and others in an effort to observe the life cycles of plants and animals across the nation.

Mark Myers, who directs the U.S. Geological Survey, said Betancourt's studies and contributions to science have been significant.

"These studies have been pivotal for establishing baselines to detect and forecast landscape changes and for developing science-based approaches to managing water and other natural resources under a changing climate," Myers noted in a news release.

"The rigorous, cross-disciplinary investigations that Julio conducts – and encourages through his colleagues and students – is in the best tradition of the survey's focus on applying science to understand the complexity of Earth systems," Myers added. "His work greatly benefits our organization and natural science in the broadest sense."

Betancourt, who received graduate degrees in geosciences from the UA in 1983 and in 1989, was also heavily involved in raising awareness about the need to curtail the buffelgrass invasion in southern Arizona.

"It's been a humbling and surprising experience, but I've learned how to interact effectively across local, state and federal governments, with the general public, and perhaps most importantly with the business community," Betancourt said.

"We may not be able to eradicate buffelgrass, but I'm confident that through our efforts Arizonans will be better prepared to minimize the risks and adjust to the consequences," he said.

And that is the true function of a scientist, Betancourt added.

"I'm one of those scientists who have realized that it's no longer justifiable that we work strictly under the cloak of objectivity and fill up a reservoir with scientific papers and products while society walks by and plucks what they need," he said.

Science should serve society more directly by identifying more readily the emergent issues, he said.

"I think we all see fast moving problems, whether in my case where they deal with climate change or invasive species or some other environmental problem."

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