Keeping crops productive in times of drought, heat and floods

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in  a series of articles highlighting the summer research activities of Michigan State University doctoral students, funded in part by ESPP’s Summer Research Fellowship program. To learn more about the program, go to

Lin Liu is a dual major PhD candidate in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Environmental Science and Policy (ESPP) under the supervision of Bruno Basso. This summer, she is researching crop productivity in the state of Michigan in relation to the Food-Energy-Water nexus . Since the Midwest has seen a dramatic increase in drought periods, heat stresses, and flooding, Liu believes it is vitally important to understand how these extreme weather events will affect fertilizer and irrigation requirements as well as water quality and quantity.

Lin Liu (Earth and Environmental Sciences; Environmental Science and Policy) is researching crop productivity in the state of Michigan.

During her research this summer, she is going to use the SALUS (the Systems Approach to Land Use Sustainability) crop model to understand how and why these changes occur.  According to the Basso lab, “The SALUS (System Approach to Land Use Sustainability) program is designed to model continuous crop, soil, water and nutrient conditions under different management strategies for multiple years. These strategies may have various crop rotations, planting dates, plant populations, irrigation and fertilizer applications, and tillage regimes. The program will simulate plant growth and soil conditions every day (during growing seasons and fallow periods) for any time period when weather sequences are available.”

Another major part of her research is collecting historical long-term weather data from the Global Historical Climatology Network and analyzing extreme weather events, specifically droughts and heat stresses, and how they affect different parts of the growing season.

SALUS will also be used to simulate changes in precipitation to evaluate the effect on grain yield, nitrate leaching, energy cost, and water use, according to Liu.


Learning new technology to study Water Microbiology in Chapel Hill by Huiyun Wu (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

With the opportunity to attend the Water Microbiology 2018 conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I was able to communicate with many top microbiologists.

Huiyun Wu, Civil and Environmental Engineering doctoral student, traveled to the Water Microbiology conference in Chapel Hill, NC. Photo credit: Environmental Virology Laboratory at MSU.

I presented an oral presentation about Microbial Source Tracking (MST) in surface water. Besides my own presentation, I met research peers who work on MST as well. Dr. Orin Shank from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave a keynote presentation “A review of MST tools”. Dr. Mia Mattioli from U.S. Center of Disease Control hosted a seminar in “MST tools’ application in Waterborne Disease Outbreak Response”. Their talks gave me ideas of the history and the prosperous future to apply my own research. Since I was working on MST field in my doctorial program, I have read many review papers, method papers, and case study papers. I was very surprised that I came across many authors and their students in this conference, such as Dr. Valerie Harwood, Dr. Marc Verhougstraete, and Dr. David McCarthy (I met his student). Therefore, I got a chance to talk with them and ask questions.

The Water Microbiology 2018 conference provided a platform for innovative research as well. In our lab, we used whole-genome sequencing for surface water to help identify the source of microbial contamination. There was a presentation about using hsp 60 sequencing for the same purpose. I followed the speaker for more technical details. I am looking forward to applying this method in the future for our research, since it is cheaper and easier to analyze data (there is a commercial bioinformatic pipeline for data analysis).

Chapel Hill is a very pretty city. After the conference, I spent some time walking around the campus of UNC Chapel Hill. The southern Magnolia tree’s sweet fragrance was filled in the air, which reminds me of my hometown in southern China. My friend, who is an Alumni of MSU in Environmental Engineering stopped by Chapel Hill, and we had good time together.

Above all, I would like to thank you ESPP. By awarding me the summer travel fund, you have lightened my financial burden which allows me to focus more on the most important aspect of school and learning. The conference experience has inspired me to contribute back to my department and my working places.

Huiyun Wu is an Environmental Engineering doctoral student with an emphasis on Environmental Microbiology. Her trip to Chapel Hill was funded in part by ESPP’s Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants. For more information on the grants and how to apply, go to

Surprisingly Unforgettable by Camille McCall (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

Just thirty minutes before my flight departed I ran out of the Metro Detroit Airport flailing my arms frantically trying to get my sister’s attention as she drove off. I was too late, so I proceeded back into the airport to call her. In just five minutes she managed to circle back around so I could get my poster tube out of the trunk. I’m always forgetting something! Thankfully, I boarded my flight on time and just an hour later I arrived in Minneapolis, MN. During the week of June 3rd, Minneapolis was home to the Environmental & Water Resources Institute (EWRI) Congress. The EWRI Congress is an annual conference hosted by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It features technical workshops, and research presentations from industry and academic professionals around the world in topics across multiple disciplines. EWRI aims to integrate current research, technical expertise, and policy with the intent of establishing sound environmentally sustainable designs.

Camille McCall, phd student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, presented her research at Environmental & Water Resources Institute (EWRI) Congress.

The first evening of the conference I met more names than I can remember, I was invited to attend one of the EWRI committee meetings, and I had the popular lemon ricotta hot cakes at the famous Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis. Throughout the conference I continued to connect with people from all places. I met other graduate students from several different universities including, University of Maryland, Stanford, Texas A&M, Purdue, and more. We spent the evenings trying out different restaurants, exploring the city, and visiting the sculpture gardens. We talked about details of our current work, expressed ways in which our research connects, and discussed highlights of our presentations. During the conference, I gave an oral and poster presentation both entitled “Comparative Study of Sequence Aligners for Detecting Antibiotic Resistance in Bacterial Metagenomes.” I discussed my performance analysis of several different approaches for detecting resistance genes in environmental systems and presented the results when applying the optimal method to wastewater samples. This type of work could help researchers in the field of environmental microbiology select the best method for obtaining a comprehensive overview of resistance genes in environmental media. I was relieved and thankful to see the many faces that attended my presentation, engaged with me, and asked questions. Additionally, I was able to attend presentations that covered topics such as, the effects of antibiotic resistance on microbial concentrations in streams, rainwater harvesting, and the effects of climate change during wet and dry seasons.


Camille McCall, a phd student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, dines with a group of presenters in Minneapolis, MN.

To cap off the week, to my surprise I won first place for my poster presentation. Whew, good thing I remembered that poster tube! As I boarded my flight back to Michigan, I reflected on my experience at the conference, the moments that I never anticipated, and the unforgettable connections that took shape with some many people. Thank you ESPP for investing in this amazing experience!

Camille McCall is a doctoral student in Civil and Environmental Engineering. Her trip to Minneapolis was funded in part by ESPP’s Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants. For more information on the grants and how to apply, go to

Investigating the connections between women, water and societal power in Kenya

Editor’s note: This is the fourthin a series of articles highlighting the summer research activities of Michigan State University doctoral students, funded in part by ESPP’s Summer Research Fellowship program. To learn more about the program, go to

Alaina Bur is a second year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. This summer, she is conducting research on power dynamics for women in Kenya in relation to water management, the Kenyan government, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) through a process called participatory resource management. This process was designed to increase environmental sustainability and empower locals by involving them in the decision making for natural resources.

Alaina Bur is a doctoral student and graduate assistant in the Department of Sociology and Environmental Science and Policy Program at Michigan State University.

Recently, highland deforestation has resulted in increased flash floods and droughts in surrounding plains which has made it more difficult for farmers in this area to grow crops. As a result, the national government and NGOs have begun using participatory resource management  (PRM) to empower locals to manage their forest and water resources.


However, there is little known about the effect on power relations with stakeholders, the Kenyan government, and NGOs. Bur is currently using the “hydrosocial cycle” to investigate these relations. “The hydrosocial  cycle,  a concept  from political  ecology, describes  a co-dependent, hybrid relationship  between  water and  society in  which  humans have  the  power  to  shape the  flow  of  water, and  water  has  the  power  to  shape  societal  relations as  humans  compete  to  access and  control water” according to Bur.

Alaina Bur (Sociology, ESPP) and her research assistant Festus visit a damn under construction next to a forest in Cherangani Hills, Kenya.

Bur’s adviser, Jennifer Carrera, Assistant Professor with the Department of Sociology and the Environmental Science and Policy Program, believes that Bur is more than prepared to take on this type of research.


“Her  research  is  dynamic  and  critical  as  she  aims  to  explore the relationship  between  water  scarcity  in  a  lowlands  region  as  it is  connected  to highlands forest  management,  and  its  impact  on  power  for  women  in  these  communities,” Carrera said.

Predicting when and where salt water rises to the surface in the Great Lakes could help agriculture and human health, according to research by ESPP Summer Research Fellow Zachary Curtis.

Zach Curtis, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy doctoral student, is working to understand water sustainability in the Great Lakes.

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles highlighting the summer research activities of Michigan State University doctoral students, funded in part by ESPP’s Summer Research Fellowship program. To learn more about the program, go to

Zach Curtis is in his final year of his PhD study in Environmental Engineering at MSU. This summer, he is both developing and testing different methods for modeling complex human-groundwater systems in hopes of understanding water sustainability. In particular, he hopes to understand water sustainability in Michigan and in the Great Lakes region.


His research investigates a serious yet relatively unknown problem for Michigan called “brine upwelling.” Brine upwelling is where salt water (which is unfit for human consumption and for agricultural purposes) is pushing up towards the surface and pushing out the freshwater in low-lying areas that is fit for human consumption. Salt water also has the ability to be detrimental to both the environment and the fragile ecosystems that are dependent on groundwater.


Curtis wants to be able to predict both accurate and operational changes via a simulation of a larger groundwater system due to both climate change and human activity by estimating the pumping levels at different locations, for different types of wells, and at different times in the future.


“This is actually the continuation of a previous 4 year study of groundwater sustainability in southern Michigan which included several analyses of both quantity and quality of the groundwater,” Curtis said.


Curtis’ adviser, Shu-Guang Li, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, believes that Curtis’ research is the first step in water sustainability for Michigan.

“Zach’s  dissertation  research represents  the  first, holistic,  system-based  investigation  to  characterize,  across  multiple  scales, the  integrated  groundwater  quantity  and  quality  dynamics  associated  with  the brine upwelling  process.”



Saving seabirds from energy development and climate change is the goal of ESPP Summer Fellow Matt Farr (ESPP and Integrative Biology)

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles highlighting the summer research activities of Michigan State University doctoral students, funded in part by ESPP’s Summer Research Fellowship program. To learn more about the program, go to


Matt Farr is a doctoral student in the Department of Integrative Biology and the Environmental Science and Policy Program. This summer, he is studying “Impacts of offshore energy development, oceanographic features, and climate change on seabird distributions.”

Matt Farr is a doctoral student in Integrative Biology and Environmental Science and Policy. He is spending his summer studying the way energy structures and climate change impact seabirds in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the Gulf of Mexico, seabirds must contend with energy structures from oil and gas platforms to wind turbines. In addition, they are impacted by changes in ocean features and ongoing climate change.

Matt is using aerial seabird data from the Gulf of Mexico Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species to develop models that estimate and predict the effects of offshore energy development, oceanographic features and future climate scenarios on seabird distributions in the Gulf of Mexico.

He hopes the results from the analysis will aid in the conservation of marine and energy resources, inform energy regulation and seabird conservation.

Dr. Elise Zipkin is Matt’s advisor and professor of Integrative Biology.

“Matt is developing innovative methods to address some of the most challenging questions in environmental and conservation ecology,” Zipkin said. “He has a keen interest and a great deal of intuition about the development and analysis of ecological and biodiversity models.”



How can microbes in the soil affect greenhouse gases and mitigate climate change? An ESPP Summer Research Fellow hopes to find out.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles highlighting the summer research activities of Michigan State University doctoral students, funded in part by ESPP’s Summer Research Fellowship program. To learn more about the program, go to

Di Liang is a doctoral student in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences. This summer, he is working to identify the soil microbial sources of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. It is his hope that knowing how these microbes contribute to N2O fluxes can offer additional greenhouse gas mitigation options.

Di Liang (Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences) is researching the net ecosystem of soil nitrification under a Climate-Food-Energy-Water framework.

Because soil nitrification converts ammonia to nitrate (NO3) and releases greenhouse gas N2O as a byproduct, it is an ecological process that directly influences agriculture ecosystems and links to climate-food-energy-water (CFEW) interactions. This nitrate  is readily available for crop uptake, which supports food production. But it– is also a water pollutant that can be easily leached out and negatively affects water quality, Liang said.  Additionally, N2O has a global warming potential 300 times higher than CO2.

“I review the ecological importance of soil nitrification and propose a new research to assess the net ecosystem services of soil nitrification,” Liang said.

This has a huge potential because one third of the anthropogenic greenhouse has emissions are from agriculture – specifically food production, fertilizer manufacture and food storage and transportation. Additionally, the use of synthetic fertilizer has been proven to be the main cause of the increased atmospheric nitrous oxide, the third most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

“To better mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, understanding the linkage between microbial processes and water-energy-microbes interaction is critical,” Liang said.

Liang’s adviser, Dr. G. Phillip Robertson, a University Distinguished Professor at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, believes Liang’s research could lead to changes in the interactions of the microbes that could mitigate climate change.

“Di’s findings are contributing to our ability to acquire bioenergy funding. They also have, in aggregate, policy implications for agricultural greenhouse gas abatement,” Robertson said. “I believe his work has and will advance MSU’s efforts in environmental science.”

Where the science came from? Let’s meet others! by Hogeun Park (Urban and Regional Planning, ESPP)

We, researcher, always asked ourselves about When did science begin? and Where the science begin?  I firmly believe that the science came from a mixture of arguably debates and nonsense discussion. There are no such references to empirically prove this statement. Believe me. The conference is the place where we, researcher, can make chitchat on all every scientific idea (i.e., the thing your family never want to discuss with you). In this spring semester, I attended the 2018 American Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting. I met and communicated many people like me or at least like my research topic.

Hogeun Park (Urban and Regional Planning and ESPP) presented his research at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting.

Thanks to ESPP funding, I did convene the session about Climate Change and Agrarian Adaptation in the Global South, which cannot be a conversation topic in your family dinner. During 100 minutes of the session, we—other presenters, I, and audiences, interactively made an in-depth discussion on this topic. The presenters exhibited various research across Peru, Senegal, Colombia, Nepal, and India. Given the complexity of agrarian adaptation mechanisms, understanding of adaptation strategies in different nations are not comparable. However, through our in-depth discussion, we discussed similarities and differences of adaptive behaviors in response to the different context of socioeconomic and environmental settings. It is an eye-opening moment for me in order to understand the complex system of climate adaptation behaviors. We also spent our extra break time to discuss these divergent trajectories of climate adaptation in Global South and research gaps we need to focus.


Particularly, my presentation “How do farmers adapt to climate change? Using Agent-Based Modeling (ABM) to understand decision-making processes of agrarian farmers in the Indo-Gangetic Plains.”, got fairly good attention to discuss the further avenue to move forward. In my research, my colleague and I discovered that the agrarian adaptation behaviors in Bihar region are fairly based on coping strategies under the profit maximization and are influenced by neighborhoods (i.e., social capital). In particular, our model indicated that the farmers’ behaviors can be explained by social capital (49%) and profit maximization motivation (40%). These two divergent results also linked our study to the discussion of “Hardin’s the tragedy of common vs. Ostrom’s critique” has long been discussed. The audiences and I also discussed several points. While we did not espouse any side of this debate as of right now, this result indicated the remaining challenges and research direction.


In a nutshell, come and enjoy the conference, you will meet people like you. Believe me. You are not the only one who studies your specific research topic. There are many!


Hogeun Park is a doctoral student in Urban and Regional Planning and Environmental Science and Policy. His trip to New Orleans was funded in part by ESPP’s Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants. For more information on the grants and how to apply, go to

Life lessons learned in New Orleans by Rebecca Minardi (Community Sustainability and ESPP)

Rebecca Minardi (Community Sustainability) traveled to New Orleans to attend the AGU conference.

I walked onto the plane headed to New Orleans and braced myself. The flight attendant looked a little startled and said, “Congratulations! Um so, how far along are you?” You see, you can’t fly past 36 weeks pregnant (apparently, delivering a baby thousands of miles in the sky is not included in flight attendants’ duties). I was nearing 34 weeks.  I was safe but just barely. The attendant let me on board, and I buckled in. I was headed to the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, and I was certainly going to make the most of it. Who knew when I’d be flying again!

When we landed, I stepped outside to catch an Uber and was immediately blasted by the sun. Warmth! This past Michigan winter made me forget what it even felt like. I knew then that it was going to be an amazing week in New Orleans. I made it to my hotel and immediately checked into the conference. It. Was. Huge. With over 8000 attendees from all over the country, I was excited to meet new people, attend myriad sessions, and learn more about my own research interests (the impact of large hydroelectric dam construction on communities, of course!). But first… coffee. I met my three friends from MSU at Café du Monde for three piping hot beignets drenched in sugar and a café au lait. You can’t attend a conference on an empty stomach, especially when super pregnant.  It just won’t do.

Since I wasn’t presenting until the last day at the last time slot (I was prepared to be happy if just one person showed up), I settled in for many sessions and workshops. My favorite workshop was “Walking the Tightrope: Practical Advice for Women on Exercising a Leadership Mindset.” As women still struggle to climb the academic ladder compared to their male colleagues based on a continued systemic culture of sometimes implicit and sometimes outward bias, I was excited to learn more tips and tools to combat this problem.  I’ve experienced meetings where the women literally sit in the back of the room, where women are cut off or not given eye contact when speaking, and where their ideas are subtly undermined. In this workshop, we practiced speaking and listening skills, developed our personal ideals for what positive leadership entails, and shared ideas on how we can change the problems we see at our own institutions.

The rest of the conference went well, and I’m surprised and happy to report that people did attend the session my MSU colleagues and I presented in. It was the biggest conference I have presented at, but I enjoyed the process including the feedback and questions I got from the audience (always the most unnerving part for me). I worked on practicing some of the skills we discussed in the leadership workshop and reminded myself that though I wasn’t an expert on dam resettlement communities yet, I was working hard to become one. We celebrated ourselves by going to Commander’s Palace for one of the best meals ever (and honestly, the bread pudding soufflé with whisky cream is not to be missed).

Rebecca Minardi (Community Sustainability) presented her research on “Understanding Resettlement Caused by Dams: A Global Review” at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting.

Though I was sad my trip to New Orleans was coming to an end, I was happy with what I learned. As I reflected back on the workshop on women in leadership, I realized it was especially timely for me. Throughout the semester I had been thinking a lot about balancing a new family with the rigors of academia while being afforded the respect I deserved. Being pregnant in grad school is not common. I was working hard to remind others that it didn’t mean that I was going to be any less of a scholar and student. As I continue to hone my research skills, I won’t forget to also practice my leadership skills especially in light of the fact that other female students are going through the same life changes and experiences as I am. I look forward to sharing these stories from when I was in school with my son or daughter someday. I’ll remind them that with hard work, anyone can be a leader and scholar, from the man in the prime of his academic career to the new mother working on her dissertation while getting to know her baby.

New Orleans offered Rebecca Minardi (Community Sustainability) with more than research presentations.

Rebecca Minardi is a doctoral student in the Department of Community Sustainability and the Environmental Science and Policy Program. Her trip to New Orleans was supported by an ESPP Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grant. For more information on how to apply for a grant, go  to


Networking, researching and more in The Big Easy by Nafiseh Haghtalab (Geography)

New Orleans, the “Big Easy” city is one of the most beautiful cities located on the Mississippi River in Louisiana. It was my first time in NOLA and It was awesome. Especially when a huge conference is happening there. I could kill two birds with one stone. Thanks to ESPP travel funding that made it possible for me to travel down to NOLA and enjoy the city, weather, and the conference. AAG (American Association of Geographers) is one of the biggest gatherings of scientists in multidisciplinary fields like social science, atmospheric science, agriculture, and even history and economic. It was great opportunity for me to attend this conference, present my research and communicate with other experts in my field. The paper I presented at AAG2018 was about interannual variability of rainfall and rainy season over eastern Africa. In this paper I found that the rainy season is very variable, and it has shifted forward meaning that the season has been started later and ended later which was statistically significant.

Nafiseh Haghtalab is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spacial Sciences. She traveled to New Orleans with assistance from ESPP>


Besides, I met some researchers and professors from all around the World. I talked to them and we shared our research ideas and current results. It was great networking opportunity. The exhibition halls were great as well. I talked to Elsevier agents, and I learnt how to find the best fit journal for my papers to publish and how to recognize fake journals from the real ones.

Besides, NOLA is a beautiful city which never sleeps. People are up all the time around-the-clock. The time I was there it was the same time with the French Quarter Jazz Festival. You could hear Jazz songs all around the Quarter. If you plan to travel to NOLA, keep in mind to try southern fried chicken, all amazing sea food like Red Fish, Mussels, clam, and even you can try fried alligator.

All in all, this trip was very informative for me. It was my first time being in Louisiana.  I got to know new culture, see amazing French style architecture, and delicious food. Besides, I met a lot of scientists and made a great network. Again, thanks to ESPP to provide me travel money, otherwise I would not be able to go there and have such a great experience.


Nafiseh Haghtalab is a PhD. Candidate in the  Department of Geography, Spatial Science, and Environment, Michigan State University.