Launched in 2006, the URC has hosted competitions since 2007 and boasts contestants from around the globe, including the United States, Canada, India, Bangladesh, Poland, and Egypt. Each year, contestants are given point scores based on how quickly they complete a series of tasks and how closely each task conforms to parameters outlined by the competition guidelines. This year, teams must complete a terrain traverse, a simulated equipment servicing, an astronaut assist, and the retrieval and measurement of a non-contaminated soil sample.
Collaboration and Challenges
Byron Cragg, Science Team Lead for the Titan Rover Team out of California State University, Fullerton, says it’s been an uphill battle. “We’ve had to design the systems we are using to control our rover, retrieve our data, and keep our data organized from the ground up. We’ve also needed to make our rover robust in case a battery or a motor fails during the competition.”
It is no easy feat to build a rover for the Utah desert, let alone send instrumentation to Mars. This is why it has taken a multi-disciplinary team to build the physical components, robotic arm, telecommunications, and scientific cache on Titan Rover. Cragg says his team consists of scientists, computer engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, geologists, chemists, and biologists all working together.
A prototype image of the Titan Rover.
Titan Rover Features
The CSU rover is outfitted with sophisticated features like Leap Motion infrared sensors that allow Titan Rover’s robotic arm to be controlled by a human counterpart moving their arm in free space. When the user moves their arm and hand position, the arm on Titan Rover is given a signal from the command center to move accordingly.
Cragg is responsible for the 3D printed science cache that uses a 3” auger and a capacitance sensor to measure a soil sample’s volumetric water content, temperature, and bulk electrical conductivity. During the competition, the team will also be required to construct a stratigraphic column from HD images transmitted by the rover, as well as measure soil temperature at a depth of 10cm.
“It comes down to designing the pieces to communicate and work together to perform the tasks correctly,” Cragg says about the challenges ahead. “It’s one thing to build the rover,” he adds, “but it’s another to complete the requirements.”
While ambitions of a colonized Mars are on the horizon and research pushes on, like the Titan Rover project, progress will require collaboration and teamwork. In the meantime, good luck to all the Earthlings who will be competing in the Utah desert this June.
During a recent semester at Washington State University, a film crew recorded all of the lectures given in the Environmental Biophysics course. The videos from each Environmental Biophysics lecture are posted here for your viewing and educational pleasure.
Dr. Khot and his postdoc, Dr. Jianfeng Zhou, are using leaf wetness sensors to determine if and how long water is present on cherry tree canopies after a rain event. Dr. Khot hopes that data from these sensors will help growers decide whether or not it makes sense to fly helicopters in order to dry the canopies.
Dr. John Selker, hydrologist at Oregon State University and one of the scientists behind the Trans African Hydro and Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO) project, gives his perspective on the future of sensor technology.
Michelle Newcomer, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, (previously at San Francisco State University), recently published research using rain gauges, soil moisture, and water potential sensors to determine if low impact design (LID) structures such as rain gardens and infiltration trenches are an effective means of infiltrating and storing rainwater in dry climates instead of letting it run off into the ocean.
Looking up at a tree canopy
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In the conclusion of our three part series on the reforestation of Banguet province in the Philippines, we asked Dr. Anthony S. Davis, Tom Alberg and Judi Beck Chair in Natural Resources at the University of Idaho, Loreca Stauber, one of the visionaries behind the project, and Kea Woodruff, former U of I Nursery Production and Logistics Associate, now at Harvard University, to explain some challenges associated with teaching reforestation to different cultures.
Even with increased environmental awareness, we’re still losing almost thirty million acres of forest globally every year.
What are some of the cultural challenges?
Anthony: As I spend more and more time looking at international forests, I realize that we’re losing forests at a phenomenal rate. Even with all of our awareness about where we get supplies, where trees come from, where wood comes from, and where paper comes from, we’re still losing almost thirty million acres of forest globally every year. That’s terrifying to me. What’s even worse is that most of it comes from countries that don’t have environmental controls. They don’t have systems in place that keep them from cutting down all the trees. Often, when we cut trees down for forestry, we replant. But, when you start to work in countries where that’s not valued or not part of the culture or the system, then a huge problem emerges.
How do you teach people to grow trees that can survive in their native terrain?
Anthony: There isn’t a lot of knowledge globally about how to grow high-quality tree seedlings. I’ve gotten really interested in the question of how to take a tree seedling which is grown in a nursery, where it essentially has all of the water and all of the nutrients it could possibly ask for, and get it into a condition where it’s likely to survive somewhere extremely harsh: with limited nutrients and water. How do you get it to the point where it’s able to overcome those challenges?
There are two ways to look at that. One is to get more water to that seedling after it’s planted. The other is to make sure that the seedling you’re planting has its best possible chance of developing a root system that can access water that might not normally be available in those six inches where healthy roots are located when it’s first planted. Based on work that’s be done here at the University of Idaho in graduate student projects over the years, we found that if you can grow a seedling in a healthy manner in the nursery, it’s more likely to grow roots or access water that previously they might not have been able to access.
Working on one of the water tanks that will supply water to the Benguet nursery in the Philippines. The project is proceeding nicely after a series of setbacks: a destructive typhoon, slides that had to be cleared, 2 deaths, 1 funeral, and electrical power interruptions.
What challenges the plants after they leave the nursery?
Anthony: If that seedling can get roots down and access water, it starts to grow. The beauty of reforestation, in general, is that it’s very simple; it can be very easy to get trees to grow. However, what often happens is you have a social element that overlaps the biological element. Some of it could be a lack of education, where people don’t understand that a large amount of foliage or leaves on a tree means that you need more water. You think about that image of success: people want to plant the biggest tree possible. That might work in a yard, but it really doesn’t work in a reforestation situation.
What are the challenges of establishing a nursery in a place like the Philippines?
Kea: In the place like the Philippines where resources aren’t necessarily as available, it becomes a huge challenge just finding the right kind of media or container. Also, there’s a decentralization of the knowledge resource itself. While we were there, we had the opportunity to meet with different government agencies, and there are definitely people who know a lot about the species that are available and how to grow them, but in terms of that information being disseminated and widely available to the public, that’s a challenge. The techniques that will be needed to actually produce a seedling resource need to be addressed.
Loreca: The basic thing is a good nursery. That has been a problem. In the past, the government, in an effort to green the Philippines, has given seedlings, but oftentimes, these seedlings are so poor in quality that they don’t survive in out planting.
Coffee beans will thrive in the tropical Philippines.
How can you help other cultures to succeed at reforestation?
Anthony: During some work I was doing in the Middle East, in Lebanon, we found that communicating to people what a high-quality seedling became really important. You teach them about quality, defining it in terms of how much water a plant needs to survive, or how a plant has to grow in order to colonize a site. We had a lot of success with the project there, getting people to understand that there was a problem in only looking at above ground information in terms of what makes a high-quality seedling. Really, when the roots are what’s driving survival, they’re looking at the wrong part of the picture.
How do you teach people to think beyond the nursery?
Anthony: Our work in Lebanon coincided with a project in Haiti. In Haiti, we had a former student who had been here at the University of Idaho who asked for help starting a nursery. These same conversations occurred: what is a healthy seedling, what is likely to survive, where do you get your seed, how long do you grow it for, when do you plant it? We were able to have conversations around all of the elements that go into growing trees.
I remember clearly the “aha” moment where this young woman said, “We’ve been doing it wrong! We’ve always focused on growing as many seedlings as possible, and we haven’t worried about quality.”
See it live
Watch a video where Anthony talks about his work.
You can learn more about the reforestation programs that the University of Idaho nursery is involved with here.
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In one of the first agroforestry efforts in mountainous terrain, Moscow, Idaho community leader Loreca Stauber, Dr. Anthony S. Davis, Tom Alberg and Judi Beck Chair in Natural Resources at the University of Idaho, and their partners have initiated a program where U of I students travel overseas to work with farmers of Banguet province in the Philippines to develop the skills needed to grow high quality tree seedlings. Local vegetable farmers have historically terraced the mountains that have been forested so they could grow monoculture crops, causing serious erosion (read about it here). The land has degraded so much that the Philippine government has stepped in: warning farmers to begin conservation techniques, or they will take away the land and manage it themselves.
Building a local nursery in Benguet.
Inspiring Students to Look at the Big Picture
One of the steps in helping local farmers to solve this problem is to create a local nursery where they can start growing native plants and trees. Fortunately, the University of Idaho has operated a tree nursery for over one hundred years, and they understand how to grow trees. Dr. Davis specializes in setting up native nurseries for growing native plants all over the world. He says, “I want our students to be exposed to this because we’re graduating students who should be problem solvers, who should be able to look at the biggest challenges and contribute their own ideas towards resolving those challenges.”
Loreca Stauber adds, “We are part of the world and the world is part of us. The students can do more than just get their degree and find a job. Anthony and Kea, when they do this, inspire students to look at a bigger world than they are currently living in.”
Training Students to Understand Native Terrain and Resources
Davis says a good plan needs to take local conditions into account: “The principles of growing trees are actually universal. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Haiti, Lebanon, Idaho, or in the Philippines. Those principles are the same and they’re readily transferable. It’s how you adapt them to unique local situations that makes a difference.”
“It’s not really about the best way to grow a plant in a greenhouse environment; It’s about the best way to grow a plant that will also survive on its outplanting site.”
Kea Woodruff, former U of I Nursery Production and Logistics Associate, now at Harvard University, says they train the students who go overseas on the “target plant” concept: designing a growing regime based on what the plant is going to need in its future home. She says, “It’s not really about the best way to grow a plant in a greenhouse environment; It’s about the best way to grow a plant that will also survive on its outplanting site. Determining what the outplanting site is and what each species will need to survive on that outplanting site is what determines greenhouse operations.”
Dr. Davis says you need to consider native resources when doing these types of projects. “There could be plumbing there, but there’s no guarantee that when you turn the system on, the tap water will come out. That depends on the seasonality of the rains. It’s part of why we wanted the project partners (the farmers) to have data loggers: so we could look at the data together and get a better feel for when water is most abundant and when it’s most scarce, so it can be stored for later use.”
Overcoming Native Challenges with Remote Data
Decagon (now METER) donated data loggers to the program so that Dr. Davis and other people on the team could look at data with the farmers in the Philippines and advise them when to irrigate. Davis says, “One of the things that’s most important in trying to set up a very remote nursery and manage the production in that nursery from approximately four flights, twelve hours, and twelve time zones away, is knowing what’s going on. There are things that are really easy to ask, like could you send me a picture every Wednesday and Saturday of the nursery, or could you measure the height and the diameter of the seedlings? What’s much harder to tell is how much water is coming in, or what the temperature was during the day or night, because those require people to be monitoring things at a greater frequency than is often possible. If we know how much water is coming into the nursery from rainfall, we can build collection systems so that we can manage where that water goes later on.”
Managing data for both the short and long term is critical, says Davis, because it’s often whether there was rainfall in the predicted amount, and at the right time, that determines whether a seedling establishes or not.
Acknowledgements: The SEAGAA agroforestry project in Benguet is agro and forest; the farmers received a grant from the Rufford Foundation based in the UK to build a greenhouse and much of the water catchment system and auxiliary structure that go with a nursery facility. They also received a sizable grant from the Philippine government to launch mushroom growing as a necessary complement to help support long-term agroforestry. The project is beyond reforestation – it is the growing of trees, shrubs, ground cover, the restoring of watersheds, creating livelihoods, the rebuilding of soil fertility and integrity, the revival of springs which have vanished with the removal of perennial flora, and the restoring biodiversity to bring back the natural checks and balances of a natural ecosystem.
In the mountainous Benguet province of the Philippines, farmers grow up to three crops of vegetables a year. Their mountain vegetable farms exist at the expense of original forest cover, causing tremendous erosion difficulties. To counteract erosion and preserve the watershed as well as promote reforestation, the Philippine government issued a mandate: farmers must find alternatives that restore the watershed or lose their land.
Rice terraces in the Philippines
An Agroforestry Alternative
Loreca Stauber is no scientist, but she loves Benguet, and a letter from her friend, a scientist living in the Philippines, inspired her with the vision of teaching farmers to reforest the mountains and grow vegetables amongst the trees.
Her friend writes, “We envision mountain farms as forest ecosystems whose primary social responsibility to the communities around and below is to be part of responsible watersheds that court, catch, store and gradually share water. We see mountain farms that are not prone to soil erosion or leaching: cultivated with minimal chemical inputs and tillage that will allow the natural buildup of biomass, organic matter, helpful organisms and fauna. We think of forest ecosystems that may not make millionaires of its farmers for one generation and heavy debtors even before the next. Rather, we envision forest farm ecosystems that are self-sufficient and self-sustaining. We are working on demonstrating forest ecosystems that can substitute for monocrop vegetable farms that deplete and leach the soil, pollute watersheds and are self-destructing.”
Realizing the problem in the Philippines could be solved by reforestation, Loreca emailed Dr. Anthony S. Davis, Tom Alberg and Judi Beck Chair in Natural Resources in the University of Idaho’s Department of Forest, Rangeland, and Fire Sciences. The U of I operates a 100-year-old nursery specializing in growing hardy tree seedlings. Dr. Davis recalls, “The email she sent me said, “I think you should do something about this,” and I thought, “Actually I agree. I think we should do something about this. So we began to screen the idea, asking: are there partners? Is it a good idea? Does it fit with this little thing that we do really well, which is essentially teaching people how to grow tree seedlings, and is there an educational component that’s valuable for our students? When those check boxes lined up, then it was a matter of taking advantage of that opportunity and seeing where it could go.”
Forested mountains in the Philippines
Determining What Already Works
Together, they and other partners started a program in which U of I students went overseas to teach the people of Benguet how to grow trees, with the goal of moving the land toward agroforestry. They wanted to grow a forest ecosystem (trees, shrubs, and ground cover) along with annual crops. Kea Woodruff, former U of I Nursery Production and Logistics Associate, now at Harvard University, traveled to the Philippines with an interdisciplinary team of undergraduate and graduate students to look at what agroforestry projects were already working and to conduct a needs assessment. She says, “I saw a wide variety of landscapes in the areas that we were. One woman decided on her own that she was going to practice agroforestry, and people come and view her land as a demonstration site. It has mature bamboo, coffee trees, and mature Benguet pine. It really looks like what you would expect the native forest to look in an area like the Philippines.”
Kea said there were also intermediate sites where there are Benguet pines and some coffee with row crops blended in, such as strawberries and squash. She adds, “There’s clearly great potential to grow different species on these lands if we can help figure out the best way to use the resources that are available.”
Next week: Learn how partners in the project have been able to use native resources in the quest to reforest erosion-plagued Benguet.
Take our Soil Moisture Master Class
Six short videos teach you everything you need to know about soil water content and soil water potential—and why you should measure them together. Plus, master the basics of soil hydraulic conductivity.
Many athletes don’t like artificial turf. They say it’s hot, uncomfortable to run on, causes burns when you slide or fall on it, and changes the way a ball moves. Professional women’s soccer players even started a lawsuit over FIFA’s decision to use artificial turf in the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
Soccer players on natural turf.
Some universities—including Brigham Young University—have responded to athlete concerns by using natural turf fields for practice and in their stadiums. But the challenge is to develop plants and management practices for natural turf that help it stand up to frequent use and allow it to perform well even during the difficult fall months. It’s a perfect research opportunity.
BYU turf professor and manager of BYU sports turf, Bryan Hopkins and his colleagues in the Plant and Wildlife Department, have been able to set up a new state-of-the-art facility to study plants and soil in both greenhouse and natural conditions. The facility includes a large section of residential and stadium turfgrass.
Before Soil Sensors
Initially, BYU maintained the turf farm grass on a standard, timer-based irrigation control system, but over time they realized that understanding the performance of their turf relative to moisture content and nutrient load is crucial. Last year during Memorial Day weekend their turf farm irrigation system stopped working when no one was around to notice. During those four days temperatures rose to 40 C (100 F), and the grass in the field slipped into dormancy due to heat stress. In response, Dr. Hopkins began imagining a system of soil moisture sensors to constantly monitor the performance of the turf grass. He wanted not only to make sure the turf never died but also to really understand the elements of stress so they could do a better job growing healthy turf.
Sensors Give a Clear Picture
Soon afterward, a team of scientists, including fellow professor Dr. Neil Hansen, installed volumetric water content (VWC) and matric potential sensors at two different sites: one in the sports turf and one in a residential turf plot. Each plot had two installations of sensors at 6 cm and 15 cm, along with VWC only at 25 cm, to measure water moving beyond the root zone. Combining these measurements, they could clearly see when the grass was reaching stress conditions and how quickly the turf went from the beginning of stress (in terms of water content and time) to permanent wilting point. In addition, ancillary measurements of temperature and electrical conductivity provide an opportunity for modeling surface and root zone temperature as well as fertilizer concentration dynamics.
Installing water content sensors at the BYU turf farm.
What the researchers learned was that they were using too much water. Dr. Colin Campbell, a METER research scientist who worked with BYU on sensor installation, comments, “We found in the first year that the plants never got stressed at all. So this year, the researchers allowed the water potential (WP) at 6 cm to drop into the stress range (~ -500 kPa) while observing WP at 15 cm (-50 kPa to -60 kPa). We hope this approach will reduce irrigation inputs while creating some stress in the grass in order to push the roots deeper.”
What’s happening with the water?
Dr. Campbell’s favorite part of the sensor data was the detailed picture it gave of what was happening with the water in the sandy soil (Figure 1). He says, “Most people believe that they have an intuitive feel for water availability in soil. If we were only using water content sensors, seeing a typical value of 20% would lead us to believe we were comfortably in the middle of the plant available range (A). But in this study, using our colocated soil water content and soil water potential sensors, the data showed readings over 15% VWC were too wet to affect the WP (B). However, once WP visibly changed, it quickly moved toward critical stress levels (C, -1500 kPa is permanent wilting point); it only took two days for the water potential to change from -8 kPa to -1000 kPa. A subsequent dry period (D) shows similar behavior, but this time the 15 cm WP drops to near -1000 kPa.”
The plant stress levels were reached surprisingly quickly in this soil because its sand composition has a lot of large pores and not very many small ones (Figure 2). Campbell explains, “The large pores store water that is not held tightly due to low surface area, so the water is freely available. But at around 10% VWC all the water from the large pores is used up. As the soil dries beyond that, the water is held tightly in small pores and becomes increasingly unavailable. This is clear in the moisture release curve. We see almost no change in water potential as the soil dried to 16% VWC, but from 10% down to 7%, the water potential reached permanent wilting point, and it happened in just over a day.”
What the Future Holds:
The researchers wanted to make sure that if they went down to certain stress levels, they wouldn’t cause harm to the plants, so this year, they installed a weather station to monitor evapotranspiration and calculate irrigation application rates. They also began measuring spectral reflectance to monitor changes in leaf area (NDVI) and photosynthesis (PRI). This will enable them to see the impact on the plants as the turf is drying down. “In the future,” says Campbell, “we hope that both commercial and residential turf growers will be able to more effectively control their irrigation and nutrients based on what we find in this study.”
Bodies of water across the world face extreme pressure from non-point source pollution. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of this problem, but it didn’t daunt Dr. John Lea-Cox, Research and Extension Specialist for horticulture at University of Maryland. Dr. Lea-Cox was acutely aware that agriculturally applied fertilizers threatened serious harm to the Chesapeake Bay area near his home. Using an early version of METER’s water content sensors, he began to put together a system that could monitor water status in nursery operations. The effort was based on the work of Dr. Andrew Ristvey (now a colleague at Maryland) who showed water savings of more than 50% during his PhD work using TDR sensors in pots growing ornamental plants. Dr. Lea-Cox and his colleagues wanted to ultimately develop a network of soil moisture and environmental sensors that would help greenhouse and nursery growers know when to turn on and off their water. Their goal was to reduce nutrient and water use through more efficient application.
How did Dr. John Lea-Cox, Research and Extension Specialist for horticulture at University of Maryland, convince nursery growers to reduce water and fertilizer use?
One hurdle facing Dr.Lea-Cox was that water savings didn’t resonate with all growers. But he soon realized that better irrigation control influenced things growers did care about: higher quality crops, lower mortality rate, and less spending on pesticides. Dr. Lea-Cox discovered that when he showed growers their moisture sensor data, they were hooked. One snapdragon grower, who found that he could use the sensors to produce a more lucrative A grade crop, said he would not like to go back to the days before sensors. “My gosh, it would be like going back ten years. It would be like trying to measure the temperature in a room without a thermometer. We are totally dependent on them.”
Orchids grown in a nursery.
Dr. Lea-Cox was not only good at convincing growers, but scientific collaborators as well. Building on this team’s initial findings, he organized a project to develop water retention curves to tie the amount of water in pots to what was actually available to the plant for several different mixes of potting soil. He realized that moisture measurements were practically useless to growers without a mechanism for viewing them all in one place, so he began to look for collaborators who could build an integrated, wireless system to get root zone information to the nursery grower’s computer and allow them to set irrigation limits and automate their systems based on soil and weather data.
The resulting collaboration was a group of diverse scientists and commercial growers who could study root behavior, plant-environmental interactions, the performance of the plants, and individual grower interaction with the system. After a few years of testing, the group received $5M in funding from the Specialty Crops Research Initiative (SCRI) Program over five years to improve horticulture for ornamental plants grown in the U.S.
Lauren Crawford, METER’s soils product manager, says that the resulting collaboration was unique. “It was amazing that an instrumentation company, a research group, and commercial growers were able to work so well together. It was because of the trust we had for each other. We were very transparent about what we were doing, even when we knew that transparency would be difficult. The result was that we were able to make tremendous progress in both science and technology.”
March 11, 2015 marks four years since the Fukushima disaster. What have we learned?
Shortly after the Fukushima disaster, we donated some of our sensors to Dr. Masaru Mizoguchi, a scientist colleague at the University of Tokyo. He is using the equipment to contrive a more environmentally friendly method to rid rice fields in the villages near Fukushima of the radioactive isotope cesium 137.
Over the last three years, government contractors removed 5 cm of topsoil from fields in order to extract the radioactive isotope. The topsoil has been replaced with sand. The problem with this method is that it also removes most of the essential soil material, leaving the fields a barren wasteland with little hope of recovery anytime soon. Topsoil removal may also prove ineffective because wild boars dig up the soil to root for insects and larvae. This presents a problem in the soil stripping method, as it becomes impossible to determine exactly where the 5 cm boundary exists. In addition, typhoons and heavy rains erode the sand surface raising safety and stability concerns.
Currently, bags full of radioactive topsoil are stacked into pyramids in abandoned fields. An outer black bag layer filled with clean sand is placed around the outside to prevent radiation leakage. The government has promised that these bags will be removed and taken to a repository near the destroyed reactor, but many people don’t believe that will happen as the bags themselves only have a projected life of 3-5 years before they start to degrade. More of these pyramids are being built around Iitate village every day, which is a source of uneasiness for many people that are already cautious about returning.
Dr. Mizoguchi and his colleagues have come up with a new “flooding” method now being tested in smaller fields that can save the topsoil and organic matter while at the same time removing the cesium, making the land usable again within two years. The new method floods the field and mixes the topsoil with water, leaving the clay particles suspended. Because the cesium binds with the clay, they can drain the water and clay mixture into a pre-dug pit and bury it with a meter of soil after the water has infiltrated. After one year of using this method, the scientists saw that the cesium levels in the rice had gone down 89%. And in situ and laboratory instrumentation have shown that two years after cesium removal, the plants’ cesium uptake is negligible, and the food harvested is safe for consumption.
Dr. Mizoguchi standing by a sensor station containing Decagon sensors
Dr. Mizoguchi is monitoring the surrounding forests with our canopy and soils instrumentation in order to determine if runoff from the wilderness areas will return cesium to the fields and what can be done about it. He’s figured out a way to network all the instrumentation and upload data directly to the cloud. Still, even if this technology and new methodology work, will people around the world ever feel safe eating food grown near Fukushima? Dr. Mizoguchi says, “I believe that the soil is recovered scientifically and technically. However, harmful rumors will remain in the public mind for a long time, even if we show the data that proves safety. So we must keep showing the facts on Fukushima based on scientific data.”
Resurrection of Fukushima volunteers use Dr. Mizoguchi’s method to rehabilitate small farms
Incredibly, each weekend a volunteer organization of retired scientists and university professors use their own money and time to travel out to small village farms. There they labor to rehabilitate the land using Dr. Mizoguchi’s method. One of the recipients of this selfless work is a 72-year-old farmer who took his nonagenarian mother and returned to their home to fulfill her heartfelt plea that she could live out her final years outside the shadow of a highrise apartment (see this story in the video above). We are honored to be a part of this humanitarian effort.
It’s an interesting question, and certainly one scientists need to think about. In a recent conversation a science colleague said, “I think in science right now, all the funding agencies are recognizing that to answer the problems that matter, you need to bring in people from different disciplines and even industry. If you look at the major funding focus of the National Science Foundation, when they consider bio-complexity, they’re not looking for a group of people with the same perspective. Science questions are becoming more complex, so you need to get input from people with varied backgrounds.”
R.J. Cook Agronomy Farm at WSU (http://css.wsu.edu/facilities/cook/)
We got involved in the Cook Farm Project seven years ago because another scientist and I had an idea that fit in the context of a hot topic of the time which was to create a wireless sensor network that was densely populated in a relatively small area. We did this because at that time, scientists were recognizing that many of the processes they were interested in were occurring when they were not out in the field measuring. In order to understand these processes, we needed in situ measurements collected continuously over a long period of time.
What we were trying to do is show that you could create a wireless sensor network in a star pattern, where you have a central point collecting data from a host of nodes surrounding it. Our questions were: can we create a sustainable star network in the field to get consistent and continuous measurements over several seasons, while densely populating the study area with sensors? The measurement network that we designed allowed us to investigate how topography, slope, and aspect interact to determine the hydrology of the soil in this intensely managed agronomic field.
Decagon collaborated with scientists at Washington State University, working with twelve sites across a 37-hectare field. We installed five ECH2O-TE (now 5TE) sensors at 30, 60, 90, 120, and 150 cm below the soil surface.
What we learned was that when wheat plants grow, their roots follow the water down a lot deeper than you might imagine. We observed considerable water loss even 150 cm below the soil surface. Data on soil water potential suggested that, as water was depleted to the point where it was not easily extractable, plant roots at a given level would move deeper into the soil where water was more easily accessible. Soil morphology also came into play as hardpans occurred at several measurement locations and water uptake from layers above and below them showed amazing differences.
It was a really exciting thing scientifically, but also technologically. We learned that the star network was easily possible. It ran autonomously and was very successful, in spite of the fact that the cell phone we used to get the data back to the office never worked very well.
So it was the science question and the technology question together that was able to secure the funding. With those twelve sites WSU was able to secure a grant from the USDA for 4.2 million dollars and the research is still ongoing today. In fact, recently Cook Farm was established as one of the National long-term agroecosystem research sites (LTAR) which will help continue this kind of research well into the future.
Though collaboration can fuel innovation and increase the relevance and complexity of the scientific questions we study, I’ve noticed it does have its ups and downs. The highs and lows we’ve run into on our research projects may help others avoid some of the pitfalls we experienced as many diverse groups tried to learn how to work together.
Researchers discussing science at the Lytle Ranch Preserve, a remarkable desert laboratory located at the convergence of the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Desert biogeographical regions.
There can be bumps in the road when collaborating with companies who want to test their product. Being at the forefront of innovation means that untested sensors may require patience as you work out all the bugs together. But from my perspective, this is part of the fun. If we are late adopters of technology, we wouldn’t get to have a say in creating the sensors that will best fit our projects as scientists.
Collaborating scientists can also sometimes run into problems in terms of the stress of setting up an experiment in the time frame that is best for everyone. During our experiment on the Wasatch Plateau, we had six weeks to get together soil moisture and water potential sensors, but our new GS3water content, temperature, and EC sensors had never been outside of the lab. In addition, we planned to use an NDVI sensor concept that came out of a workshop idea my father Gaylon had. We’d made ONE, and it seemed to work, but that is a long way from the 20 we needed for a long-term experiment in a remote location at 3000 meters elevation. In the end, it all worked out, but not without several late nights and a bit of luck. I remember students holding jackets over me to protect me from the rain as I raced to get the last sensor working. Then we shut the laptop and ran down the hill, trying to beat a huge thunderstorm that started to pelt the area.
Desert-FMP Researchers at the Lytle Ranch Preserve
Other challenges of scientific collaboration present organizational hardships. One of the interesting things about the interdisciplinary science in the Desert FMP project is the complexity of the logistics, and maybe that’s a reason why some people don’t do interdisciplinary projects. We are finding in order to get good data on the effects of small mammals and plants you need to coordinate when you are sampling small mammals and when you’re sampling plants. Communicating between four different labs is complicated. Each of the rainout shelters we use cover an area of approximately 1.5 m2 . That’s not a lot of space when we have two people interested in soil processes and two people interested in plants who all need to know what’s going on underneath the shelter. Deciding who gets to take a destructive sample and who can only make measurements that don’t change the system is really hard. The interesting part of the project where we’re making connections between processes has required a lot of coordination, collaboration, and forward-thinking.
In spite of the headaches, my colleague and I continue to think of ways we can help each other in our research. Maybe we’re gluttons for punishment, but I think the benefits far outweigh the trouble we’ve had. For instance, in the above-mentioned Desert FMP project we’ve been able to discover that small mammals are influential in rangeland fire recovery (read about it here). We only discovered that piece of the puzzle because scientists from differing disciplines are working together. In our Wasatch Plateau project, my scientist colleague said it was extremely helpful for him to be working with an instrumentation expert who could help him with setup and technical issues. Also, we’ve been able to secure some significant grants in our Cook Farm Project (you can read about it in an upcoming post) and answer some important questions that wouldn’t have occurred to either one of us, if we hadn’t been working together. In addition, solving problems that have cropped up in our projects has spurred us on to a new idea for analyzing enormous streams of data in near-real time. (read about it here).