Tyler Volk

My areas of interest include principles of form and function in systems (described as metapatterns), environmental challenges to global prosperity, CO2 and global change, biosphere theory and the role of life in earth dynamics.

I work toward knowledge about life on a global scale; past, present, and future. My collaborative research has contributed to understanding the biosphere, with "biosphere" defined as the integrated system of atmosphere, ocean, soil, and life. My modeling of the global carbon cycle quantified biological versus physical-chemical impacts on the distribution of carbon and other elements in world's oceans.

Throughout deep time, biological evolution has been as important as purely physical forces in shaping Earth's thermal and chemical states. For instance, the evolution of plankton with shells of calcium carbonate increased the steady-state level of atmospheric CO2 and therefore pushed Earth's climate toward additional greenhouse warmth. The evolution of flowering plants (angiosperms) had the opposite effect, cooling the Earth by enhancing chemical weathering rates on the continents and thereby lowering the steady-state levels of CO2.

My work with colleague David Schwartzman showed that an overall “biotic enhancement of weathering,” including activities by ancient bacterial mats and crusts, cooled the Earth by 30 or more degrees C (best estimates) relative to the baseline of an abiotic Earth. Without an initial downward forcing of global temperature by the microbes, certain proteins would not have had enough stability for higher forms of life to evolve, such as plants.

At the American Geophysical Union's Chapman Conference on the Gaia Hypothesis (Valencia, Spain, 2000), I served on the program committee and presented, “The future of Gaia theory: How to build a lively biosphere.” Clarifying a distinctive version of the Gaia-biosphere, I introduced concepts such as “biochemical guilds,” by-products, and “cycling ratios” across several works. I debated terms such as “regulation” and issues about the structure of “Gaia” with James Lovelock, Tim Lenton, and David Wilkinson. I also publicly debated Axel Kleidon on the role of entropy in the biosphere.

Working for NASA on futuristic space projects, I built math models for the cycling of elements in what were called "closed ecological life support systems" (CELSS). From 1986-1998, I was active in this research subfield of advanced life support, helping NASA plan the systems that might someday keep astronauts alive on the Moon and Mars. With colleague John Rummel, I developed some of the first computer models to connect the flows and chemical transformations of crop production, human metabolism, and waste processing. I then turned attention to the modeling of crop growth and development for enhanced productivity, collaborating with experimentalists at Utah State University and at NASA centers in Florida, Texas, and California, in particular publishing with crop physiologists Bruce Bugbee of Utah State University and Raymond Wheeler of Kennedy Space Center, as well as with his Ph.D. students Francesco Tubiello and James Cavazonni.

A Summary of My Previous Teaching

Teaching Awards from New York University

  • 2009 — All-University Distinguished Teaching Award
  • 2008 — Golden Dozen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Education
  • 2004 — Golden Dozen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Undergraduate Courses taught at New York University

  • V55.0311 — Lessons from the Biosphere (A MAP Natural Science-II course)
  • V36.0333 — Limits to the Earth—Issues in Human Ecology Students in my Spring 2011 class developed numbers for the U.S./world average per capita consumption for energy, timber, water, metals, fish, aspects of agriculture, and more. Results and instructions on how to perform the calculations can be found here: Link
  • V28.0154 — Transdisciplinary Investigations across Multiple Evolutionary Scales (Collegiate Seminar)
  • V36.0100 — Environmental Systems Science
  • V23.0009/V49.0012 — Whole Earth Science: The Global Environment
  • V49.0330 — Cities and Their Environments
  • V50.0202 — Metapatterns in Nature, Mind, and Culture (Freshman honors seminar)

Graduate Courses taught at New York University

  • G23.1201 — Earth Biology
  • G23.1073 — Plant Resources (part of team)
  • G54.2000 — Science Survey (Journalism Dept., part of team)
  • G12.1400 — Fundamentals of Energy and Geophysical Science I
  • G12.1401 — Fundamentals of Energy and Geophysical Science II
  • G12.1410 — Atmospheres and Oceans I
  • G12.1411 — Atmospheres and Oceans II
  • G12.2310 — Advanced Oceanography I
  • G12.2212 — Physical Climatology
  • G12.3204 — Problems in Energy Science I
  • G12.3205 — Problems in Energy Science II
  • G12.3208 — Problems in Environmental Science I
  • G12.3209 — Problems in Environmental Science II
  • G65.1093 — Patterns in Space and Time (Graduate Program in Liberal Studies)

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