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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Islands, Evolution, and a book report

Academics love to keep books, such that they accumulate over the years until, one day, you move offices, change universities, or retire and give them all away.  I happened upon one of these give-away treasure troves recently and grabbed several older books.  I began my journey with a historical perspective on island biogeography, and I enjoyed it so much I thought I’d write about it.

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The book is “The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions”, written in 1996 by David Quammen.  David is a science writer, but has also written some fiction, and at the time this book was published lived in Montana, from where I so recently emigrated.  It’s written in a meandering way, weaving together textbook information, historical accounts of ecologists from the last few centuries, and his own experiences traveling the world to visit the unique locations that inspire(d) scientists to brilliance.  While it certainly helps to have a background in biology or ecology in order to fully appreciate the book, it’s seems interesting enough to grab a more general audience.

Be prepared for a feast of delicious jargon, though:

“The Origin of Species is a book of encyclopedic richness and inexhaustible tediousness, a great potpourri of argument and fact in which a reader can find almost anything a reader might want: Lamarckism, animal husbandry, geology, ethology, experimental botany, the kitchen sink, island biogeography.” pg. 200

So what is island biogeography? It’s the study of how species are distributed across an environment; specifically on islands.  Sounds simple enough.  Let’s go back to the Age of Exploration (late 1400s to the late 1700s) when new technology and a growing appreciation for the size of the planet gave rise to a burst of exploration.  Suddenly- and this historical perspective is very Euro-centric- new lands, geology, peoples, plants, and animals were being discovered, and tales of the exotic made it back to Europe.  Sometimes, preserved animal specimens would make it back to Europe, which was extremely tricky as they had to be prepared in the field, usually by skinning or pickling.  Often, the heads, feet, tails, or wings would be removed during the process, accidentally or intentionally.  This only fueled the mystery more: many species of Birds of Paradise had their feed removed during processing, leading British ecologists, many of whom were working off secondary information and had never traveled to these locales, to believe that these birds had no feet at all and lived entirely among the clouds until their death when they fell to the ground.

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Birds of Paradise, Natural History Museum of Utah

The lure of discovering new, fabulous species was irresistible, and naturalists began expeditions all over the globe to make observations and collect specimens.  Largely, collectors interested in one particular animal or insect would select a small number of specimens for each species they collected, thus they accidentally missed the natural variations in size or color that one sees in wild animals.  After all, one doesn’t always notice little differences when only looking at a few examples.  Or, they would fail to record the particular location of their find, often only labeling it only by the continent on which is was collected.  But some naturalists were more curious.  They collected more specimens, more data, and began to notice patterns.

The most important pattern was that not all animals were found everywhere.  Certainly, it was noted that certain animals were specific to a habitat- sharks to the ocean, camels to the desert, etc.  But it wasn’t until people discovered animals found exclusively on islands that it really sunk in.  And this is extremely important, because it begged the question: why?  Why are some animals in one place and not another?  How did they get there?  The prevailing theories until that point were largely based on stories from the Christian bible, but with the discovery of so many new species, a literal ark was increasingly going to be improbably overcrowded.

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Geography and Evolution

Long story short, many ecologists actually began as geologists- Charles Darwin included, and in studying island formation it became understood that some island animals had crossed on land bridges, while others flew, swam, or drifted onto islands.  The species and mode of arrival very much determined whether you could then get back off the island, or whether you were stuck.  Ok, so now we know that animals can travel and change their own habitat location (which is different from migration), which went against the prevailing theory that animals were located where they had been put during a creation event.

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Finches

The next important pattern was that multiple, closely-related species could exist in a place at the same time.  In the years following his voyage while studying the specimens he collected, Charles Darwin noticed this of the mockingbirds, tortoises, and eventually the finches on the Galapagos, which was just a brief stop on his 5 year geology cruise aboard the Beagle (1831-1836).  Again, this was important, because what was the likelihood that all these similar bird species came to the same island chain at the same time?  It was more likely that a few birds of a single species had come over, and these birds had changed over thousands of generations into several new species.  The accepted notion was that animals didn’t change- they remained as they had been created.  The idea that a species could change or evolve over time was, at best, silly and at worst, blasphemous.

Nevertheless, a number of ecologists had made reference to the possibility of change during the Age of Exploration, but lacked solid data and a concrete theory of how. The mockingbirds represented true archipelago speciation; one species came to the Galapagos islands and populations became isolated on separate islands until through genetic drift they became different species, but there were only four mockingbird types and that was little enough to go on.  On the other hand, Darwin had 31 individuals representing what he thought was 14 unrelated bird species, but it wasn’t until after his voyage, when an ornithologist properly classified the birds as all being closely-related finches, that Darwin paid any attention to them at all.  In fact, Darwin nearly missed the idea of evolution because he failed to label which island his finches came from and very little about their ecology or behavior- he had to gather missing data from other accounts for years before he could see a real pattern. To be fair, the finches are a much more complicated pattern because they display adaptive radiation; one species arrived on the islands, but populations were only transiently isolated and when they crossed paths again they were still similar enough to compete, so different species evolved to fill different ecological roles (niches) in order to avoid starvation due to competition.

Darwin’s first account of his Beagle voyage made just a brief mention of this observation on closely-related species, but it changed the life of Alfred Wallace.  Wallace came from a poor background, and eventually paid for his love of naturalism and data collection by selling the specimens he collected.  Many British naturalists at the time were wealthy, and selling one’s collection seemed base- thus Wallace, with no title or reputation, was dismissed for most of his early career.  Years after Darwin went to the Galapagos, Wallace went to South America and Indonesia and came to the same conclusion about multiple closely related species: that one species had become many.  Wallace made the jump to speciation much faster, and sent Darwin a manuscript that was frighteningly similar to the yet-unpublished Origin of Species, which Darwin had worked on for 20 years to gain enough proof to avoid being laughed at.  Social politics aside, which are discussed in the book, a joint manuscript was presented, On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection, and a year later Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, which, incidentally doesn’t even mention Galapagos finches.

The idea of macroorganismal evolution was difficult to come by, largely because it’s a much longer process than a human can witness, and because a possible mechanism for change was completely unknown (genetics was a long way away).  By studying islands, ecologists could study evolution in miniature worlds where the pressure to stay alive was great- indeed, many species were marooned on the islands they colonized.  Studying this, and the livestock breeding industry, gave rise to the idea in Darwin’s mind of Natural Selection– that external forces could change a species over time by forcing the species to change.

Because animals are isolated on islands, they change to fit that particular ecosystem in a very visible way.  Wallace noticed this happening in his travels in South America where large rivers converged: animals that could not cross the river became isolated and there would be similar but distinct species on each side of the river.  Again, the whimsical biogeography of a deity became less probable than natural forces (food, geography, predation, competition) driving the distribution of animals and plants.  Still, it took decades to iron out the particulars of evolution, and even today people refuse to acknowledge it.

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Natural Selection, Understanding Evolution

But this book isn’t solely a historical account- all of that is setting the stage for a larger picture: extinction.  For even as island pressures select for the creation of species distinct from those found on mainlands, it also selects them for extinction.  Islands are partially or completely isolated, and this means any breeding population is small to begin with, and eventually can become inbred.  Island populations often collapse: the gene pool becomes too stagnant, a natural disaster hits, food becomes scarce, a predator appears.  Because there are only so many individuals, and because they are adapted to a very specific location, island species can’t deal with change.  Unfortunately, humans bring nothing but change.  As we develop natural land for our own use we fragment habitat, and for animals that can’t cross a city to get to the other populations, their gene pool and food options are limited.  They become reliant on very specific living conditions in their small habitat fragments, and they are more susceptible to disease, inbreeding, predators, and climate change.  The smaller the habitat, the fewer the individuals, and the ore they struggle to survive.  As humans colonize all parts of the globe we are leaving man-made islands in our wake, with marooned populations of plants and animals that find it increasingly difficult to sustain themselves- we are the cause of the mass extinction of animals and plants around the globe that only trickles into our mainstream news.

“We still argue about when it [the dodo] actually became extinct, but it probably disappeared around the 1660s.  It’s become the sort of legendary bird of extinction.  And a very important bird.  There were extinctions before and there’s been lots of extinctions since, but it was an important extinction because that was the first time, the first time in the whole of man’s history, that he actually realized he had caused the disappearance of a species.”

-interviewing Carl Jones about the extinction of the dodo, pg. 277

The level of detail provided in The Song of the Dodo is fascinating, especially because historical accounts so often lose sight of a who a person was and the journey they had to take.  Darwin wasn’t always correct, other scientists had the right theories but the wrong data to prove them, and the elitism of early science often led to the adoption of incorrect theories from otherwise brilliant men.  The book gives an honest perspective- that all scientists are trying their best to make sense of the information they have, and that it can take an extremely long time to put the entire puzzle together.  And it gives cause for hope.  While we may not be able to bring back populations of species we have pushed to the brink, life is pluripotent.  If we give the natural world some space- it’ll grow back.

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

Expanding Your Horizons for Girls workshop, MSU 2017

Yesterday I participated in the Expanding Your Horizons for Girls workshop at Montana State University!  EYH brings almost 300 middle-school aged girls from all over Montana for a one-day conference in STEM fields.  Twenty-seven instructors, including myself and other female scientists and educators, ran workshops related to our current research.  My presentations were on “Unlocking the Hidden World of Soil Bacteria”, with the help of undergraduate Genna Shaia from the Menalled Lab.

I gave the girls a brief presentation on microbial ecology, and how bacteria and fungi can affect plants in agricultural soil.  We talked about beneficial versus pathogenic microorganisms, and how different farming strategies can influence soil microbiota.  This was followed by two hands-on activities that they were able to talk home with them.  First, the girls made culture plates from living or sterile soil that was growing wheat or peas to see what kind of microbes they could grow.  Then, they planted wheat seeds in either living or sterile soil so they could track which soil made the seeds germinate faster.

 

The girls were enthusiastic to learn, asked lots of insightful questions, and it was awesome being able to share microbiology with kids who hadn’t given it much thought before!  If you are a woman in STEM, and have the opportunity to participate in a workshop or mentor a young scientist,  it is not only rewarding but can make a huge impact on encouraging women into STEM.

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Slideshow photos: Genna Shaia, reproduced with student permission.

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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Plowing Forward: Montana Agriculture in a Changing Climate

Agriculture is consistently Montana’s largest economic sector, but as an arid state we need to prepare for the challenges brought on by changing weather patterns.  Yesterday, agricultural producers, scientists, special interest groups, lawmakers, and the general public came together at the Bozeman Public Library to talk about the future of climate change and what it means for people in the agricultural industry and research sector.  The event was organized by Plowing Forward, a collaborative group to coordinate local Ag. education efforts.

“If you’ve eaten today, then you’re involved in agriculture.”  -Chris Christiaens at the Plowing Forward meeting in Bozeman, MT, Feb 10, 2017

Opening remarks were led by Chris Christiaens, lobbyist and Project Specialist for the Montana Farmers Union, based in Great Falls, MT. Chris gave us some perspective on how Montana farming and ranching has changed over time, especially over the last 10 years,including changes to the growing season, harvest times, water usage, the types of plants which are able to survive here.  He reminded us that the effect of climate on agriculture affects all of us.

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Chris Christiaens, Project Specialist for Montana Farmers Union.

Next, we heard from Montana’s Senator Jon Tester, who runs a farm in northern Montana that has been in his family since 1912.  The Senator spoke to his personal experiences with farming and how his management practices had adapted over the years to deal with changing temperature and water conditions.  Importantly, he spoke about how agriculture is a central industry to the United States in ways that will become even more apparent in the coming years as the negative effects of climate change affect more and more areas.  Food security, a peaceful way of life, and economic vitality (not just in Montana or the United States, but globally), were contingent upon supporting agricultural production under adverse events.  He assured agricultural stakeholders that he continues to support production, research, and education, including the work we do in the laboratory as well as out in the field to promote agriculture.

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Montana Senator Jon Tester

Next, we heard from three professors from Montana State University.  Dr. Cathy Whitlock, a Professor of Earth Sciences, who is also the Director for the MSU Institute on Ecosystems, and a Lead Coordinator for the Montana Climate Assessment.  The Montana Climate Assessment seeks to assemble past and current research on Montana climate in order to assess trends, make predictions about the future, and help both researchers and producers to tailor their efforts based on what is happening at the regional level.  The Assessment is scheduled for release in August, 2017, and will allow for faster dissemination of research information online.

Dr. Whitlock’s introduction to the MCA was continued by  Dr. Bruce Maxwell, a Professor of Agroecology, as well as the Agriculture Sector Lead for the Montana Climate Assessment.  He summarized current research on the present water availability in Montana, as well as what we might see in the future.  He warned that drier summers were likely, and while winters may get wetter, if they continue to get warmer that snow runoff will flow into rivers before the ground has thawed.  This means snow melt will flow out of the region more quickly and not be added to local ground water sources for use here.  To paraphrase Bruce, a longer growing season does you no good if you don’t have any water.

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Dr. Bruce Maxwell, Montana State University

We also heard from my current post-doctoral advisor, Dr. Fabian Menalled, Professor of Weed Ecology Management and Cropland Weed Specialist (Extension).  He presented some of the results from our ongoing project at Fort Ellis on the interactions between climate change (hot and dry conditions), farm management system (conventional or organic), disease status, and weed competition on wheat production.  Increased temperatures and decreased moisture reduced wheat production but increased the amount of cheatgrass (downy brome), a weed which competes with wheat and can reduce wheat growth.  My work on the soil bacterial diversity under these conditions didn’t make it into the final presentation, though.  I have only just begun the data analysis, which will take me several months due to the complexity of our treatments, but here is a teaser: we know very little about soil bacteria, and the effects we are seeing are not exactly what we predicted!

Here is the video of Dr. Menalled’s presentation (just under 9 minutes):

Lastly, we heard from a local producer who spoke to his experience with ranching on a farm that had been run continuously for well over 100 years.  His talk reflected the prevailing sentiment of the presentations: that farm practices had changed over the last few decades and people in agriculture were already responding to climate change, even if previously they wouldn’t put a name to it.  The presentations concluded with a question and answer session with the entire panel, as well as a reminder that we all have the right and the obligation to be invested in our food system.  Whether we grow produce or raise livestock for ourselves or others, whether we research these biological interactions, whether we set the policy that affects an entire industry, or whether we are just a consumer, we owe it to ourselves to get involved and make sure our voice is heard.  To that end, I wrote a letter to my legislators (pictured below), and in the next few weeks I’ll be writing posts about how I participate in science (and agriculture) on the local and national level.

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Make your voice heard.

Anyone can Science, step 1: get your education on

Co-written by Dr. Irene Grimberg, Affiliate Associate Research Professor at Montana State University.


Science may seem like an exclusive club, what with the complicated technical jargon, quirky inside jokes that only seem funny to science people, daunting entrance and exit exams, and years of study and self-improvement.  And it doesn’t help that many scientists would rather hole up in their lab than give a public presentation or figure that “social media thing” out.  But we scientists get coffee stains on our lab coats and use spell-check just like everyone else.  And as with ice cream, science comes in a tremendous variety of flavors and sizes of commitment.  So, let’s talk about some ways that you can involved today!

Education

Getting acquainted with the vast field of science seems daunting, but it’s actually easy and fun.  There are hundreds of museums out there that are eagerly waiting to broaden your perspective on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and will let you give it a try with hands-on activities.  Wikipedia has conveniently made some lists on science museums in the US and around the world.  In fact, there are organizations like the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Science-Technology Centers that can help to get you connected to the museum that catches your eye.  Many US National Parks also have strong science education programs and information in the visitor centers or around the park (at least, as of January 19th, 2017 they did).

All colleges and universities host daily talks (seminars) on current research and they are open to the public, they just aren’t advertised widely in local media.  If you search online for your local university and “seminar”, you can find public presentations for nearly every department or subject, not just the STEM ones.  Some presentations are available as webinars and can be found online to watch remotely in real-time so that you can ask questions, or can be replayed later at your leisure.  There are many outreach STEM programs sponsored by non-profit organizations, sometimes in collaboration with universities.  For example, Farm Days or Field Days are public presentations at university research facilities on issues related to local and national agriculture, food production, and food safety.  In fact, most university farms and greenhouses are open to the public and offer free tours and other events on a regular basis.  There are also “ask an expert” shows on local public radio and TV in which viewers can call in and ask questions to university researchers.  Or you can simply email your questions and get connected to someone in a relevant field.  Even NASA has a program in which you can ask questions to an astrophysicist!

Other educational options include science festivals, robotic competitions and shows, Science Olympiads, The National Chemistry Week, and programs that specifically aim to recruit girls to science, such as Expanding Your Horizons and Girls for a Change.  As an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, I participated in a service-learning course in spring of 2008 in which we designed a public presentation at the ECHO Center in Burlington, VT.  The purpose of the all-day workshop was to educate kids and adults on wolf ecology and potential reintroduction into New England.  Our Wolfwise presentation was incredibly fun to host, and it was a huge hit: we were invited to come back and present again the next weekend!

 

If leaving the house isn’t your thing, there are an overwhelming amount of resources available online.  An increasing number of scientific and research journals are available free of charge online, known as open access.  Over 26 million journal articles are available through PubMed, a database for medically-relevant research studies which is curated by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).  Science News hosts a huge variety of STEM articles compiled from the most prestigious science journals, as well.  And any subject under the sun (or inside the sun) has an educational video out there somewhere.  There are science shows on TV, a dedicated cable channel, and documentaries including several outstanding educational series with high-definition video footage from around the globe (Plant Earth, Life, and The Blue Planet).  There are podcasts, such as Science, Star Talk Radio, and many others that allow you to listen to recorded audio shows on your own time.  You can find interactive websites to learn a variety of things, both academic and practical.  Or teach yourself computer coding in C++, Java, Ruby, Python, or Perl.

Just be sure that you are getting your information from a credible source.  Many online bloggers or websites sound great, but they often have no formal training in what they peddle, or are heavily sponsored by companies to promote an unsubstantiated lifestyle or discredit scientific work.  A good rule of thumb is to look for qualifications, citations, and motivations.  Does this person or organization have formal education or training?  Do they cite their sources for information?  And what is their reason for doing this?  Here are my qualifications, you’ve seen how much I enjoy citing sources, and since I am (and have always been thus far) federally-funded through different grants, I consider it part of my job to share my work and my experiences free of charge.

Featured Image Source.

The Rare Knowledgesphere

I sometimes get a self-depreciating response when I tell people what I do: “oh I could never do that,” “I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” or my least favorite; “I’m not smart enough to do that myself.”  Sure, I’m intelligent, but more importantly I am interested in my work and I put a lot of time and effort into practicing it.  I didn’t become a microbiologist overnight.  And more than that, in my career path I discovered a lot of people and opportunities that helped me get here.  I firmly believe that most people could do my job, given the right amount of education, determination, and support (and a heavy dose of enthusiasm for spread sheets).  As I move up the ladder, I’m increasingly in a position to educate, help others network, and bring students closer to their career goals.  One day I’ll be able to take on graduate and undergraduate researchers of my own, and I find myself asking, how will I find and recruit those students that just need an opportunity to become amazing scientists?  The ones that weren’t told by their teachers that they should be microbiologists but still have an aptitude for it, the ones that think they aren’t “smart enough” when really they just aren’t confident enough?

Lessons from the rare biosphere

One of the emergent theories in microbial ecology over the last few decades is that of the “rare biosphere.”  It’s the idea that microbial ecosystems are much more intricate than we realized, and there are a great many microorganisms present in any given environment that have very low populations.  We just couldn’t see them under a microscope or grow them in culture because their presence was washed out by more abundant microorganisms.  It wasn’t until the emergence of DNA-based technologies that we could really understand the depth of that diversity because this technology was able to sequence all or nearly all the DNA in the entire sample.

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An anaerobic chamber allows microbes to be grown in an oxygen-free environment, and the different color plates represent different media recipes.  Credit: Kristina Bond.

When culturing bacteria in the lab, one must try to mimic the original environment as closely as possible in order to get that microbe to grow.  It is incredibly difficult to please “everyone” on just one or even dozens of different culture media types, so you end up getting a biased idea of “who” lives in a natural environment based on what species are able to survive in the mock environment you’ve created.  DNA-based technologies don’t require live microorganisms; you can extract DNA or RNA strands directly from your environment and sequence them, although you will need a reference database of previously cultured and sequenced microorganisms to make the identification.  Sequencing has its own problems, of course, namely being able to discern between a rare microorganism whose DNA represents a very small percentage of your data, and a random sequencing error inherent to your technology that turns a known sequence into a fake novel one.  One way bioinformaticians tackle this is by removing rare sequences altogether, but as Sogin et al. argue, you might be getting rid of significant contributors to your ecosystem.

This is just one example of a major theme in science: how do we detect something if we don’t know it’s there?  How to do we differentiate what is real (but rare) from the technological errors and background noise?  We constantly improve our technology and revise our understanding of the physical world as we get better at investigating it.  But as we rely more and more on technology that we have created (which may operate on the biases we have designed into it), and we want to collect more information with less human effort, we need to remember that it’s our intuition and reasoning skills that make humans so good at data analysis and investigation in the first place. This led me to wonder if we weren’t making the same mistakes in education.

One of the most common errors we commit is to mistake education for intelligence.  Intelligence is partially a natural ability for learning and understanding, and partially cultivated by an atmosphere of curiosity and interest in learning.  Education, on the other hand, has to be earned.  While public schools and other learning resources in the United States exist to give all children an equal chance at education, in practice there are significant biases in quality and quantity in education.

The disparity between education and ability

Student to teacher ratio is correlated with student performance, and can vary widely by type of school (public, private, elementary or secondary), geographic location, urban or rural demographics, etc.  Because of that, the national trend for student to teacher ratios in public schools appears to have only slightly increased (more students per teacher) from where it was in 2002, with that increase only since 2008.  However, much of the increase in student to teacher ratios is localized, specifically in low-income districts, so there is a disproportionate affect by economic status.  Many teachers in low-income school districts cite budget cuts that result in overwhelmingly large class sizes to be the main reason they quit education (discussed here).  And a poor school budget does more than just crowd students, it depletes the school of educational resources which reduces the quality of the education and student performance.

Therefore, just because someone appears uneducated does not mean they are not intelligent.   For example, Linus Pauling, who was competing with Britain’s Watson and Crick to discover the structure of DNA, didn’t obtain his high school diploma until after he won two Nobel Prizes simply because he didn’t finish some required high school history courses.  A recent study looked at grade point average (GPA), SATs (previously the Scholastic Aptitude Test), graduate record examinations (GREs- the standardized tests that most schools use as a graduate entrance qualifier), and whether test scores predicted how well someone performed as a graduate student.  Like undergraduate study, most graduate programs require a minimum GPA and GRE score even to be considered.  However, the study found that students with higher test scores didn’t actually perform better as graduate students.  In fact, here’s a whole website about geniuses that failed IQ or other aptitude tests that went on to change the world.  Here’s another about artists, politicians, and business tycoons who failed repeatedly before becoming household names.

Another problem is our biased view of the quality of an education based on the country of origin.  Indian mathematician and genius Srinivasa Ramanujan was born in a small village in the late 1880s.  He started performing advanced geometry and arithmetic at just 13 years old, and began focusing on mathematics in secondary school and at a local college.  At 26, he wrote to British mathematicians looking to discuss his ideas, and was dismissed out of hand by almost all of them.  G.H. Hardy, however, wrote back, and began a collaboration of ideas that led to an incredible body of work between the two of them.

The Rare Knowledgesphere- The one that almost got away

This idea of overlooking greatness is important to keep in mind when ranking people by their resume or test scores instead of by an interview.  After all, just because you attended Yale doesn’t mean you went to all your classes.  This concerns me, because we may be passing over potential undergraduate or graduate students who appear less educated on paper, but aren’t less intelligent or less apt.

So, how do we as educators and mentors get beyond this bias and find the students and researchers-to-be that slip through the cracks?  The ones that are out there that aren’t even on our radar.  I’ll let you know once I’ve figured it out.  But from my experience, it comes down to taking the time to interview and really get to know someone before accepting them as a graduate student, not just selecting the best looking resume. It especially means letting go of your ideas about the quality of someone’s education based on the type or location of their school, as well as stereotypes about their abilities.

And it means being creative about marketing your positions, to make sure you are reaching the individuals that aren’t actively looking for you.  This may sound counter-intuitive; why try to recruit someone to graduate study if they aren’t interested?  Again, I can speak from experience.  My undergraduate degree is in Animal Science, and my interests in graduate study at the time centered vaguely around wildlife conservation.  Instead, I entered a graduate program where my primary research and laboratory work were focused on microbiology, genetics, microbial ecology, and bioinformatics.  I had no formal academic or practical training in these areas.  But I joined, and I excelled, all because my mentor-to-be told me that I was capable.  And here I am today, in love with my science.

With all this in mind, stay tuned for my post in the next few weeks on what makes a person a good graduate student, if it isn’t test scores.

Featured Image Credit