Thursday, October 07, 2010

UI undergraduates involved in cutting edge global change research

UI undergraduates involved in cutting edge global change research

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Over the past summer, Bartlett, Illinois native Brianna Usdrowski got a taste of what it means to be a twenty-first century plant biologist. She monitored the development of soybean plants grown under varying environmental conditions by carefully counting leaf nodes and tracking pod development. She also collected images of corn roots underground by means a special camera slipped down into a clear plastic tube, and she worked long hours in the lab processing and analyzing those many images. She coped with sun, extreme heat, mosquitoes and biting flies.

At the same time, she learned what it means to work as part of a University of Illinois team that’s addressing one of the great challenges of the century, how to ensure an adequate food supply for a fast-growing human population in the context of a changing climate. [Photo: Usdrowski with post-doctoral associate Jeff Skoneczka sampling soybean leaves in the field at SoyFACE. By Amy Betzelberger.]

Usdrowski was one of five undergraduate students who were selected this year to participate in a program called Student Ambassadors for Global Change Research, which is sponsored by the U of I Environmental Change Institute.

The Student Ambassadors program is a collaborative effort run by Lisa Ainsworth, who is a USDA Agriculture Research Service scientist and assistant professor of plant biology, and four faculty colleagues: Carl Bernacchi, Evan DeLucia, Andrew Leakey and Don Ort. All of them work with a long-running experiment called Soy Free Air Concentration Enrichment, or SoyFACE. In SoyFACE, conditions for crop growth are modified in the field, to allow for research on how agricultural plants will respond to the changes projected for the climate of the Midwest in the years to come--increased levels of carbon dioxide and ozone, higher temperatures and decreased water availability.

While much of the work performed by the student ambassadors is tied to specific investigations, they also participate in the general efforts that keep SoyFACE running. They weed plots, maintain paths and help set up the ingenious devices that experimenters use to alter growing conditions in the field. They also pitch in with efforts that require many hands: for example, dawn-to-dusk measurements of photosynthesis that call for a team of sixteen people.

The students who participate in the Ambassadors program also learn how to communicate with diverse audiences about their research. In part, they do so by collaborating with their professors on scientific papers, and creating posters to explain their work in academic settings. But they also learn to explain what they do and why for the various interest groups that visit SoyFACE, including everyone from touring South American farmers, to 4-H groups, to the Illinois Soybean Association. That’s crucial, according to Ainsworth, given the charged nature of discussions involving climate change.

The first two cohorts of Student Ambassadors for Global Change Research have included five students from the U of I and five students from other colleges and universities in Iowa, Missouri and Pennsylvania. In the years to come, Ainsworth and her colleagues hope to expand the program, perhaps to include cross-disciplinary training in agriculture and climate science.

As you might imagine, undergraduate students who participate directly in scientific work like the SoyFACE experiment are enthusiastic about the opportunity. As Brianna Usdrowski put it to me, “It opened my eyes to things I wouldn’t even have known to look for.”