From farm fields to Florida: UWRF students’ research yields valuable trip

Posted October 30, 2017

Stella Pey is a senior in crop and soils who will be graduating in May. She spent this past summer doing research work for Holly Dolliver, associate professor of geology and soil science at UW-River Falls.

The research involved testing crop land that had been taken out of use to see how well the soil had recovered. One field, Pey said, had been left unused for five years, another for 30. They tested properties such as aggregate stability (which affects erosion) and microbial biomass, and their research ultimately found that only a handful of properties were fully recovered after five years. Most needed at least 30 years to recharge after being used to intensely grow crops.

The research process, Pey said, taught her a lot. “I think I learned a lot about the processes of soil and just how those processes work over longer periods of time,” she said. “But then I also learned things just about organizing a project and what it means to conduct research – what it means to be faced with all these challenges and then overcome them.”

After finishing off the research and analyzing her data, Pey joined up with a group of 16 other students that were traveling to Tampa, Florida, to present their research in a competition for the 2017 International Annual Meeting: “Managing Global Resources for a Secure Future.” The event was hosted by the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America, and it took place over the weekend of Oct. 21.

Pey went on to win two awards; one prize was a first place on her manuscript and the other a second place on her research oral manuscript. The awards, she said, will strengthen her applications when she begins looking at graduate programs.

Katie Henk is a senior crop and soils major, and she also  attended the Florida convention. It was her first time attending the event, which happens every year and which brings together some 4,000 combined students, scientists and professionals from 57 different countries.

“We got to hear a lot of different research that’s going on throughout the entire world,” Henk said. In addition to the research presentation competitions,  there were field trips, panels and workshops that participants could attend when they weren’t preparing to compete. Henk got to explore a local national forest, visited a pioneer village where she tried fresh sugar cane; and went on a tour of the University of Florida’s research farm.

“It was 1,100 miles of pure research,” she said.

The trip to the Florida research convention is but a small part of a growing undergraduate research program available to students at UWRF. The students who go on the trip are the ones who have already shown the dedication and hard work necessary to propose and carry out a research project, and the convention offers them a chance to show off their work and potentially advance their career.

“These competitions are especially well suited for students that are going to graduate school,” said Veronica Justen, assistant professor of crop science at UWRF and one of the faculty members who went along on the trip. “This is a great networking opportunity for them to interact with professors that could be their graduate school advisers.”

The grant that funded Pey’s research stipend over the summer was an Undergraduate Stipends and Expenses grant for $2,000, which she got from the Undergraduate Research, Scholarly and Creative Activity program.

The USE grant, said URSCA Director Lissa Schneider-Rebozo, is the replacement for an older grant that was once called the Summer Scholars Award. It was originally funded by the chancellor’s office, but when it was transferred over to the URSCA program, there was no funding to go with it. To make up the loss, URSCA began using the USE grant to replace the Summer Scholars Award.

The Summer Scholars Awards were, at one point, much larger than the grants currently given out under the USE grant. The budget cuts in 2016 affected URSCA along with the rest of campus. Rather than the $3,500 award that was given to students to fund their research, Schneider-Rebozo said, the max amount for projects like Pey’s are set at $2,000.

The tradeoff, Schneider-Rebozo said, is that the URSCA program has been awarding grants to a higher number of students than ever before. The URSCA list of “past recipients and grant recipients” reports 78 people from 2016-2017 who received the USE grant. By comparison, 2012-2013 lists only 25.

Justen, similarly, said that she has seen a rise in the number of students participating in undergraduate research. Where once she might have only taken five or six students along to the research convention when she first began working at UWRF, this year she had 17. This suggests that more students are taking advantage of undergraduate research opportunities.

There has been a lot of effort to get the word out, Justen said. There has also been a lot of effort to cultivate a community of researchers, particularly within the crop and soils department. Schneider-Rebozo added that faculty who are highly involved in research themselves tend to result in better student research.

“If the faculty mentor is doing research,” Schneider-Rebozo said, “they are statistically much more likely to be successful mentors.”

Now that the competition is over, students such as Henk and Pey have several paths they can take with their research. Both will be expected to present their research at the URSCA Fall Gala on Dec. 12, but from there they have the option to continue with their research or move on to something else. Henk said she hopes to use her summer studies to land a job at a local chemical-testing company. Pey said she plans to start looking into graduate programs now that she has established her ability to conduct research.

“I put a lot of work into it,” Pey said. “Definitely worth it.”