My first week at the University of Oregon

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My new work home.

Last week was my first week as a Research Assistant Professor in the Biology and the Built Environment Center (BioBE) at the University of Oregon, and my first full week in Eugene.  Combined with the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory, our collaborative team of architects and biologists researches how to make buildings more efficient, sustainable, pleasant, and healthy.

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Delta Ponds, along my new bike route to work.

My first day started auspiciously as I charted a new bike route to work, about 4.5 mi of which is along a path snaking next to the Willamette River.  It goes through several parks, and by a few small lakes and swamps which are home to dozens of species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.  I haven’t seen any river otters yet, but I have been keeping a close eye out.

Arriving on campus, most of my first day, and first week, were spent visiting the various places around campus to get myself established as a new employee- obtaining my ID card and email address, filing out paperwork, attending orientation, and finding all the coffee places within walking distance of the building.  ESBL is renovating and expanding its offices across several large, pluripotent rooms to accommodate a growing research team, so I got a brand new standing desk, chair, shelving, and computers (on order), all to my specifications.  The flexibility of working position, screen size, and screen angle provided by my new station are comfortable and great for productivity, and it’s neat to design the new space into offices, meeting tables, and storage which are based on our personalized usage needs and preferences.  And of course, there is plenty of space for all the mementos and science toys I’ve accumulated.

Most importantly, my first week was spent acclimating to my new department and getting up to speed on the ongoing and planned projects.  BioBE and ESBL have dozens on ongoing or planned projects on the built environment, with a combination of building and biology facets.  Over the course of the summer, I’ll be writing several grants and organizing new projects that explore how building use, occupancy, and human habits affect human health and the indoor microbiome, as well as contributing to the BioBE blog,  providing building microbiome posts to Give Me the Short Version, and getting some older projects out for publication.  On top of that, I’m looking forward to exploring the Pacific coast and the Northwestern landscape, and availing myself of the Willamette Valley wine industry.

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Photo Credit: Alen Mahic

What I do for a living Part 3: Soil Ecology and Weed Management

In May, 2016, I started a post doctoral position in a laboratory that focuses on weed management in agricultural systems, especially organic farms which don’t use chemical fertilizer or herbicide. My role is to integrate microbial ecology. For example, is the soil microorganism diversity different in fields that compete better against weeds than in fields that can’t? Are there certain microorganisms that make it easier for weeds to grow, and how do they do that? Can we suppress weeds by manipulating bacteria or fungi in the soil?

So far, I’ve been doing field work for my project, as well as assisting other lab members in their own projects, as many large scale greenhouse or field experiments require large groups of helpers to accomplish certain tasks. I’m also new to weed ecology, and I wanted to learn as much as possible. Thus, I put on some sunscreen and one of those vendor t-shirts you get when you order a certain dollar amount, and got to work.

Some of our projects investigate the link between crop health and climate change.  To simulate climate change, we create rain-out shelters to mimic dry conditions, and plastic shielding to mimic hotter conditions.

One of the treatments is to infect crops with wheat streak mosaic virus, to determine whether climate change will affect the plant’s ability to fight infection, and whether it will change soil microbiota. To do this, we needed to infect our crops, which meant growing infected plants in the laboratory and selectively spreading them in the field as a slurry.

 


A similar project is using mites as a virus transmission vector, so we attached mite-infected wheat to healthy wheat.


Another project is collecting data about ground beetle diversity in organic versus conventionally farmed soil. For this, we planted pitfalls traps in fields to collect and identify beetles.


Throughout many of the ongoing lab projects, I’ll be investigating the effect of treatments on soil health and diversity.

My project is part of a larger experiment, which also involves assessing crop and weed communities.  For this, we need to randomly sample plants in the field and collect all above-ground plant material (to measure biomass as weight), as well as the biomass of each individual weed species to measure diversity (number of different weed species) and density (how large the plants are actually growing).

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And, of course, there is plenty of weed species identification!