USDA AFRI NIFA Agricultural Production Systems grant awarded to Menalled et al.

In 2016, I was a post-doc in the Menalled Lab, which studies plant and weed ecology in the context of agricultural production and sustainability.  There, I assessed soil bacterial communities under different farming management practices and climate scenarios.  I also helped to develop a grant proposal, which was just accepted by the USDA AFRI NIFA Agricultural Production Systems!  Leading this project is Dr. Fabian Menalled (as Principal Investigator, or PI), along with a number of other PIs; Dr. Amy Trowbridge, Dr. David Weaver, Dr. Tim Seipel, Dr. Maryse Bourgault, and Dr. Carl Yeoman, and collaborators Dr. Darrin Boss, Dr. Kate Fuller, Dr. Ylva Lekberg, and myself as a subaward PI.  I will again be providing microbial community analysis for this project, and collectively the project investigators will bring expertise in plant ecology, agronomy, economics, soil and plant chemistry, microbial ecology, agroecosystems, and more.

This research and extension project focuses on the needs of dryland agricultural stakeholders and it was designed in close collaboration with the NARC Advisory Board. While I was only able to attend one meeting, other team members regularly meet with Montana producers to discuss current issues and identify locally-sourced needs for agricultural research.  During this project, we will continue to meet with the NARC Advisory Board to share our results, evaluate implications, and better serve the producer community.

Diversifying cropping systems through cover crops and targeted grazing: impacts on plant-microbe-insect interactions, yield and economic returns.

Project summary

The semi-arid section of the Northern Great Plains is one of the
largest expanses of small grain agriculture and low-intensity livestock
production. However, extreme landscape simplification, excessive reliance on
off-farms inputs, and warmer and drier conditions hinder its agricultural
sustainability. This project evaluates the potential of diversifying this region
through the integration of cover crops and targeted grazing. We will complement
field and greenhouse studies to appraise the impact of system diversity,
temperature, and precipitation on key multi-trophic interactions, yields, and
economic outputs. Specifically, we will 1) Assess ecological drivers as well as
agronomic and economic consequences of integrating cover crops and livestock
grazing in semi-arid systems, 2) Evaluate how climate variability modify the
impacts of cover crops and livestock grazing on agricultural outputs. Specifically,
we will 2.1) Compare the effect of increased temperature and reduced moisture
on agronomic and economic performance of simplified and diversified systems,
2.2.) Assess the impact of climate and system diversity on associated biodiversity
(weeds, insect, and soil microbial communities) and above- and belowground
volatile organic (VOC) compound emissions, and 2.3) Evaluate how changes in
microbially induced VOCs influence multitrophic plant-insect interactions.


  1. Assess key ecological drivers as well as agronomic and economic consequences of integrating cover crops and livestock grazing in semi-arid production systems
    • Compare the agronomic and economic performance of simplified and diversified systems
    • Assess the impact of cover crops and livestock grazing on the associated biodiversity (weeds, insects, and the soil microbiota)
  2. Evaluate how climate conditions modify the impacts of cover crops and livestock grazing on semi-arid production systems
    • Compare the effect of temperature and soil moisture on agronomic and economic performance of simplified and diversified systems
    • Assess the impact of climate and system diversity on associated biodiversity and above- and belowground volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions
    • Evaluate how changes in VOCs emissions influence important multitrophic interactions such as resistance to wheat stem sawfly and natural enemy host location cues
  3. Integrate the knowledge generated into an outreach program aimed at improving producers’ adoption of sustainable diversified crop-livestock systems

Menalled lab at MSU seeking graduate students

The Menalled lab has MS and PhD opportunities in agroecology, “Diversifying cropping systems through cover crops and targeted grazing: impacts on plant-microbe-insect interactions, yield, and economic returns”.

Last year, I did a post-doc in Dr. Fabian Menalled’s weed ecology lab at MSU exploring the effect of farming system and climate change on bacteria in the wheat rhizosphere.  If you love friendly lab groups, early morning field work, and being outside, then working in the Menalled lab in Bozeman, Montana might be the place for you.

Of course, in Montana, it helps if you also love winter…

Field notes from my first ESA meeting

From iDigBio
A couple of weeks ago, I attended my first Ecological Society of America meeting in Portland, which assembles a diverse community of researchers looking at system-wide processes.  It was an excellent learning experience for me, as scientific fields each have a particular set of tools to look at different problems and our collective perspectives can solve research problems in more creative ways.

In particular, it was intriguing to attend talks on the ecology of the human microbiome.  Due to the complexity of host-associated microbial communities, and the limitations of technology, the majority of studies to date have been somewhat observational.  We have mapped what is present in different animals, in different areas of the body, under different diet conditions, in different parts of the world, and in comparison between healthy and disease states.  But given the complexity of the day-to-day life of people, and ethics or technical difficulty of doing experimental studies in humans, many of the broader ecological questions have yet to be answered.

For example, how quickly do microbial communities assemble in humans?  When you disturb them or change something (like adding a medication or removing a food from your diet) how quickly does this manifest in the community structure and do those changes last? How does dysbiosis or dysfunction in the body specifically contribute to changes in the microbial community, or do seemingly harmless events trigger a change in the microbial community which then causes disease in humans? Some of the presentations I attended have begun teasing out these problems with a combination of observational in situ biological studies, in vitro laboratory studies, and in silico mathematical modeling.  The abstracts from all the meeting presentations can be found on the meeting website under Program.  I have also summarized several of the talks I went to on Give Me The Short Version.

One of my favorite parts was attending an open lunch with 500 Women Scientists, a recently-formed organization which promotes diversity and equality in science, and supports local activists to help change policy and preconceived notions about diversity in STEM.  The lunch meeting introduced the organization to the conference participants in attendance, asked us to voice our concerns or difficulties we had faced, encouraged us to reach out to others in our work network to seek advice and provide mentoring, and walked us through exercises designed to educate on how to build a more inclusive society.

500 Women Scientists at ESA, August 2017

My poster presentation was on Wednesday, halfway through the meeting week, which gave me plenty of time to prepare.  You never know who might show up at your poster and what questions they’ll have.  In the past, I’ve always had a steady stream of people to chat with at my poster which has led to a number of scientific friendships and networking, and this year was no different.  The rather large (but detailed) poster file can be found here: Ishaq et al ESA 2017 poster .  Keep in mind that this is preliminary work, and many statistical tests have not yet been applied or verified.  I’ve been working to complete the analysis on the large study, which also encompasses a great deal of environmental data.  We hope to have manuscript drafted by this fall on this part of the project, and several more over the next year from the research team as this is part of a larger study; stay tuned!

In preparation for the ESA conference next week

I’m counting down the days for my first Ecological Society of America (ESA) conference next week in Portland, OR.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve been diligently working to finish as much analysis as possible on the data from my recent post-doc, as I am presenting a poster on Wednesday, August 9th from 4:30 to 6:30 pm; PS 31-13 – Soil bacterial diversity in response to stress from farming system, climate change, weed diversity, and wheat streak virus.

Several of my new colleagues will also be presenting on their recent work, including a talk from Roo Vandegrift on the built environment and the microbiome of human skin, and one from Ashkaan Fahimipour on the dynamics of food webs.

The theme for this year’s ESA meeting is “Linking biodiversity, material cycling and ecosystem services in a changing world”, and judging from the extravagant list of presenting authors, it’s going to be an extremely large meeting.  It’s worth remembering that large conferences like these bring together researchers from each rung of the career ladder, and many of the invited speakers will be presenting on work that might have been done by dozens of scientists over decades.  Seeing only the polished summary can be intimidating, lots of scientists I’ve spoken to can feel intimidated by these comprehensive meeting talks because the speakers seem so much smarter and more successful than you.  It’s something I jokingly refer to as “pipette envy”: when you are at a conference thinking that everyone does cooler science than you.  Just remember, someone also deemed your work good enough to present at the same conference!

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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