Still time to sign up for UMaine 4H virtual summer programs!

Looking for kids’ activities for the summer? Check out the virtual programs hosted by the University of Maine Extension 4H! Learn about animals, how to care for them, and how your food system works.

From their main page, you can find descriptions of each virtual session, including subject material, presenter, and recommended age group (k-12). You can register for as many or as few sessions as you like, which will be delivered over Zoom.

Registration is free! But if you are able to donate to support the program, those are welcome through the 4H site.

I’ll be presenting on Thursday, August 13th, 2020 at 3 pm EST.

Gut Microbes on the Farm

Learn about different digestive tracts in livestock, and the community of microbes living there that help animals digest food, or stay healthy. This presentation will give some background on different digestive tract anatomy, the factors which influence microbes in the gut, and how we can care for animals by caring for their microbes. This presentation will also feature a short presentation on Dr. Ishaq’s journey into science and a Q&A session where attendees can ask questions about gut microbes, life as a scientist, or how to get involved in this time of career. Register by August 12.

Youth ages 12 & up; open to all youth.

Paper published on soil microbes, climate change, and agriculture!

I’m pleased to announce that an article was published today on soil microbes, climate change, and agriculture! As local climates continue to shift, the dynamics of above- and below-ground associated bio-diversity will also shift, which will impact food production and the need for more sustainable practices. 

This publication is part of a series, from data collected from a long-term farming experiment in Bozeman, MT, led by researchers at Montana State University with whom I have published several times, including:

In this study, cropping system (such as organic or conventional), soil temperature, soil moisture, the diversity and biomass of weed communities, and treatment with Wheat streak mosaic virus were compared as related to the bacterial community in the soil associated with wheat plant roots.

This paper is open-access, which means anyone can read the full paper.


Dryland cropping systems, weed communities, and disease status modulate the effect of climate conditions on wheat soil bacterial communities.

Ishaq, S.L., Seipel, T., Yeoman, C.J., Menalled, F.D. 2020. mSphere DOI: 10.1128/mSphere.00340-20. Article.

Abstract

Little knowledge exists on how soil bacteria in agricultural settings are impacted by management practices and environmental conditions under current and predicted climate scenarios.  We assessed the impact of soil moisture, soil temperature, weed communities, and disease status on soil bacterial communities between three cropping systems: conventional no-till (CNT) utilizing synthetic pesticides and herbicides, 2) USDA-certified tilled organic (OT), and 3) USDA-certified organic with sheep grazing (OG).  Sampling date within the growing season, and associated soil temperature and moisture, exerted the greatest effect on bacterial communities, followed by cropping system, Wheat streak mosaic virus (WSMV) infection status, and weed community. Soil temperature was negatively correlated with bacterial richness and evenness, while soil moisture was positively correlated with bacterial richness and evennessSoil temperature and soil moisture independently altered soil bacterial community similarity between treatments.  Inoculation of wheat with WSMV altered the associated soil bacteria, and there were interactions between disease status and cropping system, sampling date, and climate conditions, indicating the effect of multiple stressors on bacterial communities in soil.  .  In May and July, cropping system altered the effect of climate change on the bacterial community composition in hotter, and hotter and drier conditions as compared to ambient conditions, in samples not treated with WSMV.  Overall, this study indicates that predicted climate modifications as well as biological stressors play a fundamental role in the impact of cropping systems on soil bacterial communities.

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My first funded proposal at UMaine!

Now that I’m an assistant professor, a significant amount of my time is spent writing grant proposals to fund projects I’d like to do in the future.

Many large federal or foundational grants take up to a year from submission to funds distribution, and the success rate, especially for newly-established researches, can be quite low. It’s prudent to start writing well in advance of the due date, and to start small, with “pilot projects”.

To that end, I’m pleased to announce that Dr. Lily Calderwood and I just received word that the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine is funding a pilot project of ours; “Exploration of Soil Microbiota in Wild Blueberry Soils“. We’ll be recruiting 1 – 2 UMaine students for summer/fall 2020 to participate in the research for their Capstone senior research projects.

Dr. Calderwood is an Extension Wild Blueberry Specialist, and Assistant Professor of Horticulture in the School of Food and Agriculture at UMaine. She and I developed this project when meeting for the first time, over coffee. We realized we’d both been at the University of Vermont doing our PhD’s concurrently, and in neighboring buildings! We got to chatting about my work in wheat soil microbial communities, and her work on blueberry production, and the untapped research potential between the two.

This pilot will generate some preliminary data to help us get a first look at the soil microbiota associated with blueberries, and in response to management practices and environmental conditions. From this seed funding, Lily and I hope to cultivate fruitful research projects for years to come!

Featured Image: Wild Maine Blueberries, Wikimedia

What is academic Outreach/Extension?

Service can be a vaguely defined expectation in academia, but it’s an expectation to give back to our community; this can be accomplished in different ways and is valued differently by institutions and departments.  Outreach is an easily neglected part of science, because so often it is considered non-essential to your research.  It can be difficult to measure the effectiveness or direct benefit of outreach as a deliverable, and when you are trying to hoard merit badges to make tenure and your time is dominated by other responsibilities, you often need to prioritize research, teaching, advising, or grant writing over extension and service activities.  Nevertheless, public outreach is a vital part to fulfilling our roles as researchers.  Academic work is supported by public funding in one way or another, and much of our research is determined by the needs of stakeholders, who in this sense are anyone who has a direct interest in the problem you are trying to solve.

Depending on your research field, you may work very closely with stakeholders (especially with applied research), or not at all (with theoretical or basic research).  If you are anywhere in agriculture, having a relationship with your community is vital.  More importantly, working closely with the public can bring your results directly to the people out in the real world who will benefit from it.

A common way to fulfill your outreach requirement is to give public presentations.  These can be general presentations that educate on a broad subject, or can be specifically to present your work.  Many departments have extension specialists, who might do some research or teaching but whose primary function is to connect researchers at the institution with members of the public.  In addition to presentations, extension agents generate newsletters or other short publications which summarize one or more studies on a specific subject.  They are also a great resource for networking if you are looking for resources or collaborations, for example if you are specifically looking for farms in Montana that grow wheat organically and are infested with field bindweed.

For my new job, I’m shifting gears from agricultural extension to building science and health extension.  In fact, the ESBL and BioBE teams at the University of Oregon have recently created a Health + Energy Research Consortium to bring university researchers and industry professionals together to foster collaborations and better disseminate information.  The goals of the group at large are to improve building sustainability for energy and materials, building design to serve human use better, and building microbiology and its impact on human health. I have a few public presentations coming up on my work, including one on campus at UO on Halloween, and one in February for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Science Pub series in February.  Be sure to check my events section in the side bar for details.

Even when outreach or extension is not specified in your job title, most academics have some level of engagement with the public.  Many use social media outlets to openly share their current work, what their day-to-day is like, and how often silly things go wrong in science.  Not only does this make us more approachable, but it’s humanizing.  As hard as scientists work to reach out to the public, we need you to reach back.  So go ahead, email us (please don’t call because the stereotype is true: we really do hate talking on the phone), tweet, post, ping, comment, and engage with us!!

 

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My review on Plant-Microbial Interactions in Agriculture got published!

A few months ago, I was invited to submit an article to the special issue “Plant Probiotic Bacteria: solutions to feed the World” in AIMS Microbiology on the interactions between agricultural plants and microorganisms.  As my relevant projects are still being processed, I chose to write a review of the current literature regarding these interactions, and how they may be altered by different farming practices.  The review is available as open-access here!

“Plant-microbial interactions in agriculture and the use of farming systems to improve diversity and productivity”

A thorough understanding of the services provided by microorganisms to the agricultural ecosystem is integral to understanding how management systems can improve or deteriorate soil health and production over the long term. Yet it is hampered by the difficulty in measuring the intersection of plant, microbe, and environment, in no small part because of the situational specificity to some plant-microbial interactions, related to soil moisture, nutrient content, climate, and local diversity. Despite this, perspective on soil microbiota in agricultural settings can inform management practices to improve the sustainability of agricultural production.

Keywords bacteria; climate change; farming system; fungi; nutrient exchange; pathogens; phytohormones

Citation: Suzanne L. Ishaq. Plant-microbial interactions in agriculture and the use of farming systems to improve diversity and productivity. AIMS Microbiology, 2017, 3(2): 335-353. doi: 10.3934/microbiol.2017.2.335

Fort Ellis inoculation day

Today was a big day out in the field at Fort Ellis: virus inoculation day for the project I’ve been part of, on how farming system can alter reactions to adverse growing conditions (like climate change, weed competition, and disease).  This is the second year of the project, and the fifth year of the larger crop rotation study, so a lot is riding on being able to keep to the schedule.

Spring has been cool and wet here in Montana, which has presented us from being able to do work in the muddy fields but hasn’t slowed down the wheat or the weeds.  If the wheat is too developed when the virus is sprayed, the infection won’t manifest well enough to measure.  Thanks to carefully prepared protocols, seasoned personnel, and a stretch of sunny, dry days, we treated our plots and went home early!

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Harvesting a feast of data

My greenhouse trial on the legacy effects of farming systems and climate change has concluded!  Over this past fall and winter, I maintained a total of 648 pots across three replicate trials (216 trials per).  In the past few weeks, we harvested the plants and took various measurements: all-day affairs that required the help of several dedicated undergraduate researchers.

In case you were wondering why research can be so time and labor intensive, over the course of the trials we hand-washed 648 pot tags twice, 648 plant pots twice, planted 7,776 wheat seeds across two conditioning phases, 1,944 wheat seeds and 1,944 pea seeds for the response phase.  We counted seedling emergence for those seeds every day for a week after each of the three planting dates in each of the three trials (9 plantings all together).  Of those 11,664 plants, we hand-plucked 7,776 seedlings and grew the other 3,888 until harvesting which required watering nearly every day for over four months.  At harvest, we counted wheat tillers or pea flowers, as well as weighed the biomass on those 3,888, and measured the height on 1,296 of them.  And this is only a side study to the larger field trial I am helping conduct!  All told, we have a massive amount of data to process, but we hope to have a manuscript ready by mid-summer – stay tuned!

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A collaborative project on sheep feed efficiency and gut bacteria was published!

I’m pleased to announce that a paper that I contributed to was recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Animal Science!

“Feed efficiency phenotypes in lambs involve changes in ruminal, colonic, and small intestine-located microbiota”, Katheryn Perea; Katharine Perz; Sarah Olivo; Andrew Williams; Medora Lachman; Suzanne Ishaq; Jennifer Thomson; Carl Yeoman (article here).

Katheryn is an undergraduate at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology who received an INBRE grant to support her as a visiting researcher at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT over summer 2016.  Here, she worked with Drs. Carl Yeoman and Jennifer Thomson to perform the diversity analysis on the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract of sheep from a previous study.  These sheep had been designated as efficient or inefficient, based on how much feed was needed for them to grow.  Efficient sheep were able to grow more with less feed, and it was thought this might be due to hosting different symbiotic bacteria which were better at fermenting fibrous plant material into usable byproducts for the sheep.

Samples from the sheep were collected as part of a larger study on feed efficiency performed by MSU graduate students Kate Perz and Medora Lachman, as well as technicians Sarah Olivo and Andrew Williams, and Katheryn performed the data and statistical analysis using some of my guidelines.  This is Katheryn’s first published article, and one I just presented a poster on at the Congress on Gastrointestinal Function in Chicago, IL!

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2017 Congress on Gastrointestinal Function

I just got back from my very first Congress on Gastrointestinal Function, poster tube.jpga small meeting for  researchers with a specific focus on the gastrointestinal tract, which is held every two years in Chicago, Illinois.  The special session this year was on “Early Acquisition and Development of the Gut Microbiota: A Comparative Analysis”.  The rest of the sessions opened up the broader topics of gut ecosystem surveillance and modulation, as well as new techniques and products with which to study the effect of microorganisms on hosts and vice versa.  The research had a strong livestock animal focus, as well as a human health focus, but we also heard about a few studies using wild animals.

As I’ve previously discussed, conferences are a great way to interact with other scientists.  Not only can you learn from similar work, but you can often gain insights into new ways to solve research problems inherent to your system by looking at what people in different fields are trying, something that you might otherwise miss just by combing relevant literature online.  A meeting or workshop is also a great place to meet other similarly focused scientists to set up collaborators that span academia, government, non-profit, and industry sectors.

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It was great to catch up with Dr. Ben Wenner, now at Purdue Agribusiness, and meet Yairy Roman-Garcia, grad student at the Ohio State University.

This year, I was excited for one of my abstracts to be accepted as a poster presentation, and honored to have the other upgraded from poster to talk!  Stay tuned for details about both of those projects in the coming weeks, and be sure to check this meeting out in April, 2019.

Draft twice, submit once: the grant writing process

Today, the research team that I am a part of submitted a grant which I co-wrote with Dr. Tim Seipel, along with Dr. Fabian Menalled, Dr. Pat Carr, and Dr. Zach Miller. We submitted to the Organic Transitions Program (ORG) through the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).  The culmination of months of work, and some 12+ hour days this past week to meet today’s deadline, this grant will hopefully fund some very exciting work in agriculture!

Research relies on grant money to fund projects, regardless of the type of institution performing the research, though commercial research centers may partially self-fund projects.  Most new research hires to universities will receive a “start-up package” which includes some funding for a few years to buy equipment, pay for a small, preliminary project, or temporarily hire a technician. Start-up funds are designed to hold a researcher over for a year or two until they may apply for and receive grant funding of their own.  Sooner or later, everyone in academia writes a grant.

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Grants may be available for application on a regular basis throughout the year, but some grant calls are specific to a topic and are made annually.  These have one submission date during the year, and a large number of federal grants are due during in the first quarter of the year, a.k.a. Grant Season.  University researchers find themselves incredibly pressed for time from January to March and will hole up in their office for days at a time to write complex grants.  Despite the intention of starting your writing early, and taking the time to thoroughly discuss your project design with all your co-PDs well before you start writing to avoid having to rewrite it all again, most researchers can attest that these 20-30 pages grants can get written over from scratch 2 or 3 times, even before going through a dozen rounds of group editing.

The Bright Idea

Most large grants, providing several hundred thousand to over a million in funding over several years, require project teams with multiple primary researchers (called Principal Investigators or Project Directors) to oversee various aspects of research, in addition to other personnel (students, technicians, subcontractors).  One researcher may conceptualize the project and approach other researchers (usually people they have worked with in the past, or new hires) to join the project.  Project ideas may get mulled over for several years before they mature into full grant submissions, or go through multiple versions and submissions before they are perfected.

The grant I just co-wrote investigates the use of cover crops in Montana grain production.  Briefly, cover crops are plant species which improve the soil quality but which you aren’t necessarily intending to eat or sell.  They are grown in fields before or after the cash crop (ex. wheat) has been grown and harvested.  Legumes like peas, beans, or alfalfa, are a popular choice because they fix nitrogen from its gaseous form in the atmosphere into a solid form in soil which other plants (like wheat) can use.  Other popular cover crop plants are great at bio-remediation of contaminated soils, like those in the mustard family (1, 2, 3). Planting cover crops in an otherwise empty (fallow) field can out-compete weeds that may grow up later in the year, and they can prevent soil erosion from being blown or washed away (taking the nutrients with it).  For our project, we wanted to know how different cover crop species affect the soil microbial diversity, reduce weeds, put nutrients back into soil, and improve the production of our crop.

We designed this project in conjunction with the Montana Organic Association, the Organic Advisory and Research Council, and Montana organic wheat farmers who wanted research done on specific cover crops that they might use, in order to create a portfolio of cover crops that each farmer could use in specific situations.  As these organizations comprise producers from across the state, our research team was able to get perspective on which cover crops are being used already, what growing conditions they will and won’t work in (as much of Montana is extremely dry), and what production challenges growers face inherent to planting, managing, and harvesting different plant types.

Drafting Your Team

When you assemble a research team, you want to choose Project Directors who have different experiences and focuses and who will oversee different parts of the project.  A well-crafted research team can bring their respective expertise to bear in designing a large and multi-faceted project.  For our grant, I am the co-PD representing the microbial ecology and plant-microbe interaction facet, about a third of the scope of the grant.  We will also be investigating these interactions under field settings, which requires a crop production and agroecology background, as well as expanding the MSU field days to include organic-specific workshops and webinars, which requires an extension specialty.

Because grant project teams are made up of researchers with their own projects and goals, in addition to providing valuable perspective they may also change the scope or design of your project.  This can be extremely beneficial early on in the grant-writing phase, especially as you may not have considered the limitations of your study, or your goals are too unambitious or too lofty.  For example, the cover crop species you want to test may not grow well under dry Montana conditions, do you have a back-up plan?  However, as the submission deadline looms larger, changing the focus of your study can cost you precious writing time.  Working in a research team requires a high degree of organization, a flair for communication, and an ability to work flexibly with others.

Identifying the research question

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All grants center around a Project Narrative, and funding agencies will provide detailed instructions on how to format your project grant.  Pay strict attention- in very competitive pools your grant can be flagged or rejected for not having the appropriate file names or section headers.  The Narrative gives introductory background on your topic that details the research that has previously been published.  Ideally, it also includes related studies that you and your team have published, and/or preliminary data from projects you are still working on.  The aim is to provide a reasoned argument that you have correctly identified a problem, and that your project will fill in the knowledge gaps to work towards a solution.  Grant panels are made up of researchers in a related field, but they may not be intimately aware of your type of research.  So, you need to be very specific in explaining  your reasoning for doing this study.  If your justification seems weak, your project may be designated as “low priority” work and won’t get funded.

In our case, cover crops have been used by farmers already, but not much basic research has been done on the impacts of picking one species over another to plant.  Thus, when cover crops fail, it may be unclear if it was because of unfavorable weather, because the previous crop influenced the soil in ways which were detrimental to your new crop, because you seeded your crop too sparsely and weeds were able to sneak in and out-compete, because you seeded too densely and your crop was competing with itself, or something else entirely.

You also need to identify the specific benefits of your project.  Will you answer questions? Will you create a new product for research or commercial use?  Will organic producers be able to use what you have learned to improve their farm production?  Will you teach students?  When you are identifying a need for knowledge and describing who or what will benefit from this study, you need to identify “stakeholders”.  These are people who are interested in your work, not people who are directly financially invested.  For us, our stakeholders are organic wheat farmers in Montana and the Northern Great Plains who want to integrate cover crops into their farming as an organic and sustainable way to improve crops and reduce environmental impact.  Not only did our stakeholders directly inform our project design, but we will be working closely with them to host Field Day workshops, film informative webinars, and disseminate our results and recommendations to producers.

Crafting Your Experimental Plan

Once you have identified a problem or research question, you need to explain exactly how you will answer it.  For experiments in the laboratory or field, you need to be incredibly specific about your design.  How many samples will you take and when?  Will you have biological replicates?  Biological replicates are identical treatments on multiple individual organisms (like growing a single cover crop species in four different pots) to help you differentiate if the results you see are because of variation in how the individual grows or because of the treatment you used.  Do you have technical replicates?  Technical replication is when you analyze the same sample multiple times, like sequencing it twice to make sure that your technology creates reproducible results.  Will you collect samples which will provide the right type of information to answer your question?  Do your collection methods prevent sample deterioration, and how long will you keep your samples in case you need to repeat a test?

In addition to describing exactly what you will do, you need to explain what might go wrong and how you will deal with that.  This is called the Pitfalls and Limitations section.  Because basic research needs to be done in controlled environments, your study may be limited by a “laboratory effect”: plants grown in a greenhouse will develop differently than they will in a field.  Or, you might not be able to afford the gold-standard of data analysis (RNA sequencing of the transcriptome still costs hundreds of dollars per sample and we anticipate over 1,200 samples from this project) so you need to justify how other methods will still answer the question.

Supporting Documents

Even after explaining your research question in the Narrative and your design in the Methods sections, your grant-writing work is still far from complete.  You will need to list all of the Equipment and research Facilities currently available to you to prove that your team can physically perform the experiment.  If you will have graduate students, you need a Mentoring Plan to describe how the research team will train and develop the career of said student.  If you will be working with people outside of the research team, you will need Letters of Support to show that your collaborators are aware of the project and have agreed to work with you, or that you have involved your stakeholders and they support your work.  I was delighted by the enthusiasm shown towards this project by Montana organic producers and their willingness to write us letters of support with only a few days’ notice!  You’ll also need a detailed timeline and plan for disseminating your results to make sure that you can meet project goals and inform your stakeholders.

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Poster presentation at ASM 2016.

Perhaps the most difficult accessory document is the Budget, for which you must price out almost all the items you will be spending money on.  Salary, benefits (ex. health insurance), tuition assistance, travel to scientific conferences, journal publication costs, travel to your research locations, research materials (ex. seeds, collection tubes, gloves, etc.), cost to analyze samples (ex. cost of sequencing or soil nutrient chemical analysis) cost to produce webinars, and every other large item must be priced out for each year of the grant.  The Budget Narrative goes along with that, where you explain why you are requesting the dollar amount for each category and show that you have priced them out properly.  For large pieces of equipment, you may need to include quotes from companies, or for travel to scientific conferences you may need airline and hotel prices to justify the costs.

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On top of what you need to complete the study, called Direct Costs, you also need to request money for Indirect Costs.  This is overhead that is paid to the institution that you will be working at to pay for the electricity, water, heating, building space, building security, or other utilities that you will use, as well as for the administrative support staff at the institution. Since nearly all grants are submitted through an organization (like universities), instead of as an individual, the university will handle the money and do all the accounting for you. Indirect costs pay for vital research support, but they run between 10-44% of the dollar amount that you ask for depending on the type of grant and institution, potentially creating a hefty financial burden that dramatically reduces the available funding for the project.  On a $100,000 grant, you may find yourself paying $44,000 of that directly to the university.

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Draft Twice, Submit Once

The Budget is by far the most difficult piece to put together, because the amount of money you have available for different experiments will determine how many, how large, and how intensive they are.  Often, specific methods or whole experiments are redesigned multiple times to fit within the financial constraints you have.  If you factor in the experimental design changes that all your co-PDs are making on the fly, having to balance the budget and reconstruct your narrative on an hourly basis to reflect these changes, and the knowledge that some grants only fund 6-8 projects a year and if you miss this opportunity you may not have future salary to continue working at your job, it’s easy to see why so many researchers find Grant Season to be extremely stressful.

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