Outside of my academic comfort zone by Christina Azodi (Plant Biology and ESPP)

This winter I escaped the cold Michigan winter to attended and presented a poster at the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. As a fourth year Ph.D. student, this was not my first conference rodeo, but the AAAS Annual Meeting, is not your average conference.

Christina Azodi is a doctoral student with dual majors in Plant Biology and Environmental Science and Policy at Michigan State University.

The AAAS is the largest multidisciplinary scientific society in the world. With the meeting’s theme of ‘Advancing Science: Discovery to Application’ as a rough guideline, the seminar topics ranged from the microbiome to sustainable cities to astrophysics. Taking advantage of the breadth of expertise at the conference, I spent my days stepping out of my academic comfort zone. I learned about efforts to use data from personal fitness trackers to assess the recovery of surgical patients, what statisticians believe went wrong in the 2016 election predictions, the impact of the phytobiome on crop production, and progress on using genomic data for precision medicine. The conference also boasted an impressive list of of plenary lecturers, including NASA’s Ellen Ochoa, Cori Bargmann from The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, renowned science communicator Katharine Hayhoe, and last (but definitely not least), Vice President Joe Biden.

While fascinating, at times I found the diversity and size of the conference overwhelming. However, I soon began noticing consistent themes cropping up in many presentations. First, was a call to develop cooperative and interdisciplinary approaches to solve big problems. In the era of big data, few labs, if any, have the resources to generate, analyze, and apply their findings without the help of other research groups. Because of the gravity of issues facing our society today, many scientists who are leaders in their respective fields were calling for collaboration across fields, institutes, and borders. There was also discussion of what cultural shifts need to take place in the academic community so that contributions to large integrative projects are given proper acknowledgement. For example, with current hiring and promotion decision often resting on the number of first/last author publications and primary PI grants, early career scientists are often deterred from collaborative work. Similarly, with competition to publish first and to get grants funded so fierce, sharing data and/or resources is often avoided.

This word cloud shows all the talk titles at AAAS this year. Created by Christina Azodi

Another noteworthy theme to emerge from the conference was one that MSU’s Environmental Science and Policy Program emphasizes in its curriculum, the importance of science communication. Whether it was communicating across science disciplines, to policy makers, or to a non-scientific public, scientists at the AAAS are clearly concerned about the difficulties surrounding science communication.

Attending the AAAS conference is like seeing a performance version of Science Magazine’s top breakthroughs of the year. To see the advances and challenges facing researching working at the edges of their fields is both captivating and exciting. Because working on a Ph.D. typically means digging deep into a very specific problem, it is easy to forget the big picture and even why you wanted a Ph.D. in the first place. At the AAAS conference, I was reminded why 15 year old me wanted to become a scientist. Because nature is amazing and by learning more about it we can hopefully make someone’s life a little bit better.

Thanks to ESPP for generously funding my trip to the AAAS meeting.

Christina Azodi is an ESPP and Plant Biology doctoral student.  Her trip to Austin was funded in part by ESPP’s Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants. For more information on the grants and how to apply, go to http://espp.msu.edu/education/travelfunds_2018_final.pdf

 

ESPP Research Fellow Awa Sanou is investigating how Nigeria’s poultry farmers are adapting to climate variability

Editor’s note: This is the seventh 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 http://www.espp.msu.edu/research/Summer_fellowship_2018-final2.pdf

Awa Sanou is a PhD candidate in the Department of Community Sustainability. This summer, she is conducting research regarding Nigerian farmers’ perception of climate variability and how it affects both their productivity and adaptability decisions in poultry farming. In recent years, this sector has grown considerably due to rising incomes and urbanization but there are still many challenges such as limited access to electricity and water.

Awa Sansou, doctoral student in the Department of Community Sustainability, is research climate variability affects on poultry farming.

According to Sanou, this research is vital because if water and electricity are scarce, then food can become scarce as well.

“Nigeria’s poultry sector is critical in ensuring food security because it is a source of inexpensive protein for the growing middle class in urban areas,” Sanou said.

Sanou’s advisor, Dr. John Kerr, also believes that this topic is very well-suited for Sanou and for this year’s theme for the ESPP Summer Research Fellowship. “Poultry production is an important topic in Nigeria, a burgeoning country of over 160 million people whose population is expected to soar in the coming years. Meeting the demands for animal protein is critically important, and poultry is attractive because of the high protein to feed ratio for production of both eggs and meat,” Kerr said.

Sanou plans on taking an interdisciplinary approach in regard to her research. She plans on using open-ended qualitative questions to understand from the farmer’s perspective how climate change has affected their operations and how they have learned to adapt. She also conducted a choice experiment related to the different attributes of poultry feed and plans on analyzing the data using econometrics.

Brushes with hydrological fame in Toronto: an ESPP travel blog by Zachary Curtis (Civil and Environmental Engineering and ESPP)

I recently traveled to Toronto, Canada to present Michigan groundwater research at the 61st annual Conference on Great Lakes Research, made possible because of generous funding from the Environmental Science and Policy Program at MSU. For those of us environmental researchers that call the Great Lakes our temporary (or permanent) home, this is a bucket-list item. The conference covers a wide variety of topics – from aquatic ecology, to physical limnology, to watershed management and policy dimensions – over four days of seminars, poster sessions and informal get-togethers. It was remarkable to learn so many new things about a system that I live in and have studied for the past few years.

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

The conference offered the usual opportunities for networking and broadening perspectives, but it also led to a chance encounter that I will always remember. Waiting outside the hotel, I sparked up conversation with an older gentleman that was also waiting to shuttle to the conference. After a few minutes, I realized I was talking to a plenary speaker and a well-known research hydrologist! His 2015 paper on water security and the science agenda is one of my favorites – in fact, I routinely share a copy with students as a teaching instructor in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Already nervous from the fact that the shuttle was running late and the Toronto traffic was moving slow, (I was cutting it a little close for my oral presentation…), I felt even more nerves as I realized the unique opportunity to talk with an accomplished leader of my field was unexpectedly afforded to me.  Yet, the tardiness of the shuttle and the slow commute was a blessing – he was extremely engaged and interested in my research, and we had plenty of time to exchange stories and perspectives (and I did end up making it to my talk with plenty time to spare…).  To be at opposite ends of our research careers – me, just getting started, and him, planning his final projects – made for an interesting and frank discussion.

Minutes before my oral presentation, I noticed that he was sitting in the second row. Afterwards, I spent some time answering questions and receiving excellent feedback from him. I walked away from that brief encounter feeling motivated to push on and do my best work, and with some more reflection, it helped me to realize how important it is for young researchers to have a variety of mentors – because there are always set-backs and unexpected changes, and you never know who can help give you some perspective.

This conference deepened my love for the Great Lakes region and helped me better appreciate those that study it.  But perhaps most importantly, this conference also helped develop my sense of mentorship and opportunity that I will apply as I grow into a seasoned researcher.

Zachary Curtis is an Environmental Engineering doctoral student.  His trip to Toronto  was funded in part by ESPP’s Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants. For more information on the grants and how to apply, go to http://espp.msu.edu/education/travelfunds_2018_final.pdf

What will it take to make Michigan accept aquaculture? An ESPP student is fishing for answers.

Editor’s note: This is the sixth 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 http://www.espp.msu.edu/research/Summer_fellowship_2018-final2.pdf

Michigan has the capacity to produce between $1 billion and $5 billion each year for commercial seafood. However, Michigan actually imports roughly 90% of their seafood from countries with substandard environmental, labor, and health laws due to the perceptions of the threats held by aquaculture (or fish-farming) to the Great Lakes after this long recovery.

Since the state of Michigan has made a painstakingly slow recovery after centuries of over-exploitation and industrial dumping, many stakeholders are extremely reluctant to consider aquaculture as a form of economic prosperity.

However, Betsy Riley, ESPP Summer Research Fellow, University Distinguished Fellow and fourth year doctoral student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and ESPP, believes it is time for a change.

This summer, she is conducting research in regard to a possible sustainable seafood industry here in Michigan. Building off data from her capstone project, she wants to figure out the acceptable level of risk with this industry.

Betsy Riley (Fisheries and Wildlife, ESPP) is working on sustainable seafood in Michigan.

Since she has spent the last nine months interviewing stakeholders, she views them as a vital part of her summer research.

“This research rethinks my research participants as research partners who can help decide which research questions are most important to them,” Riley said.

According to Riley, the fight over aquaculture has been long and heated with people on both sides of the aisle thinking the risks are too great and the rewards are too small and most likely will not happen for at least another decade. “Lawsuits have been filed, legislation is introduced, expert panels have come and gone, and millions of dollars have been offered and turned down.”

But she has already made great strides in advancing knowledge of sustainable aquaculture. Riley has contributed to a collaborate project with Michigan’s Quality of Life Agencies to develop a commercial aquaculture siting suitability mapping resources and guidebook.

“Because of Betsy’s focus on scholarship in graduate research and scholarly outreach activities, including a current Sea Grant Extension Graduate Fellow, I believe Betsy will continue to develop into an exemplary leader in conservation of our fisheries, aquaculture and water quality linking scholarship and scholarly outreach activities that will positively impact the fisheries resources in the Great Lakes region,” wrote Heather Triezenberg, Extension Specialist and Program Coordinator for the Michigan Sea Grant.

“I believe results from Betsy’s research will be foundational to understanding stakeholder perceptions of sustainably raised aquaculture products in this region, and range of acceptance. This information will inform outreach and engagement efforts for years to come.”

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 http://www.espp.msu.edu/research/Summer_fellowship_2018-final2.pdf

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 http://espp.msu.edu/education/travelfunds_2018_final.pdf

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 http://espp.msu.edu/education/travelfunds_2018_final.pdf

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 http://www.espp.msu.edu/research/Summer_fellowship_2018-final2.pdf

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 http://www.espp.msu.edu/research/Summer_fellowship_2018-final2.pdf

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 http://www.espp.msu.edu/research/Summer_fellowship_2018-final2.pdf

 

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.”