What got you interested in your field of research?
My journey into research began as a volunteer on an organic farm in upstate New York. Day one included the manual removal of cucumber beetles (Acalymma vittatum) from high-value cucurbits. My immediate thought was, “There has to be a better way to do this.” Unfortunately, organic growers do not always have better ways to manage the challenges faced when growing food.
The human landscape does not have to be destructive. With science we can better understand the planet and ‘coexist with’ rather than ‘extract from’ the environment. For example, plants have inhabited earth for 100s of millions of years. My work is centrally focused on unraveling the mysteries of nature to optimize solutions for sustainable agriculture.
What brought you to TLI?
The science at TLI is groundbreaking. Literally. While my PhD focused on organic management of the swede midge (Contarinia nasturtii; Diptera: Cecidomyiidae), a particularly challenging pest of brassicas (broccoli, kale, cauliflower, etc.), the permanence of perennial agricultural systems allows long-term ecological relationships to be realized, and I want to be a part of that. While my initial decision to work at TLI was a direct result of meeting with my lab cohort, it is the work we are accomplishing together that compels me to stay.
What is a general timeline of your work throughout the year?
This summer will include a lot of writing and computer work. Specifically, I will be working on publishing four studies, three greenhouse assays, and one data science project. The greenhouse assays vary from a trial testing the efficacy of essential oil applications in their ability to manage thrips (Heliothrips haemorrhoidalis) to a novel intercropping study performed by one of our research residents, Jarrod Fyie.
In the fall, I will be performing another greenhouse assay testing for general synergies between intercropped plants. For context, these trials are being performed as a test of the data science framework we are establishing for selecting candidate intercrop species. The greenhouse assays provide a real-world test of the patterns we see across broad, data-driven comparisons of plants and their fungal symbionts.
The one constant I am sure of in my day-to-day for next winter, spring, and beyond is writing and coding. Writing will likely shift in focus from publishing research to targeting grants, while coding will shift from building out the data science project to packaging it into a web-based application that growers and researchers have access to.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
My biggest challenge, that I am sure many can relate to, has been working in a pandemic. Fortunately, I have found it easy to tune into the mission of The Land Institute, even while working remotely. Our bold goals for sustainable agriculture are far-reaching, so the motivation to bring them into reality is always within grasp.
Have you/has your team made any important breakthroughs in the last year?
We are currently in the process of unraveling some very cool ecological relationships between plants and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Nearly 90% of known plant species form relationships with mycorrhizal fungi, but their potential for agriculture remains under explored. The, so to speak, bleeding edge of our work in this context involves categorizing plant phytochemicals based on a couple of factors: 1) whether or not they have compounds (or even pieces of compounds) from a particular functional group (e.g. linear chemical structures vs. circular chemical structures); and, 2) whether or not they contain specific elements (e.g. N, S, O) or additional substructures (e.g. aminyl, hydroxyl, carboxyl). These splits will provide even more precision in our exploration of the complex relationships made between plants and fungi, but discovery-wise, you will have to stay tuned.
Do you have any personal research projects you are excited about right now?
Jarrod’s working title for his greenhouse project is the “Interchem” study. We are looking at whether intercropped plants [grown with fungal inoculum (MycoBloom)] can alter the phytochemical profile of their neighbor, a phenomenon called natural product transfer. Plant pairs are selected using the proprietary algorithm that we are tuning to pinpoint interesting (i.e., useful) plant relationships. We are currently in an early, but exciting, stage of this process – growing seemingly random combinations of plants side by side in the greenhouse and seeing what happens. Data collections include general growth metrics (plant height, dry mass, etc.) as well as headspace volatile collections. The volatile collections allow us to qualitatively (type) and quantitatively (amount) compare the phytochemical variation across every plant.
What are your personal research goals for the next 5-10 years related to perennial agriculture?
I would love to see optimally spaced/designed perennial polycultures diversifying the agricultural landscape. Productive plant mixtures that mitigate the compounding damages of our agricultural history. Fortunately, I am not the only one with this massive goal!
Do you have any personal hobbies/activities/interests outside of work that are fascinating your right now which you would like to mention?
Our daughter, Lila, fascinates us every day. For example, she has only been walking for ~7 months, yet already loves dancing. Though one of her uncles will swear she is a punk rocker, lately she loves samba. It has always interested me to see how tastes (food or otherwise) can change with experience. Seeing it firsthand in a little version of myself has been something else entirely.
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