For the fifth consecutive year, 10 unacquainted college students piled into a van for a beach road trip. They headed east to the North Carolina sand but not to sun on it. This unlikely mix of students came to study coastal sands and the other 11 soil systems from mountains to sea in NC.
Field Research Training
The road trip was no vacation, but a training exercise called the geomorphology tour. The week-long trip spanned 20 soil sites from the NC coast to the mountains. It served as an introduction to NC soils and as a primer on soil classification for a select group of college students in the Research Education for Undergraduates (REU) program funded by the National Science Foundation. The REU program exists to provide college undergraduates research opportunities usually reserved for those who’ve already turned their tassle a time or two.
Beginning with the BESST
NC State hosts multiple REU programs each summer including two in the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences: BESST and BeeMore. The Crop & Soil Sciences’ REU site is affectionately named BESST – Basic and Environmental Soil Science Training. It truly draws the best in both faculty and students.
Dr. Josh Heitman started the BESST program in Crop & Soil Sciences to attract students majoring in environmental sciences who don’t necessarily have soils experience. “These aren’t just NC State students. Our students have come from over 45 institutions across the country. We look for applicants from diverse backgrounds and try to balance large/small schools and urban/rural environments,” Heitman explained. And it’s a sharply competitive process. “We have 150-250 applications each year. We can only accept 10.”
Those lucky few are in for a career-changing experience. Students trade their usual summer break to become NC State residents for the 10-week intensive. They live on campus and have full access to university labs and field sites for their investigations.
Student – Faculty Connections
NC State faculty volunteer to mentor REU students at close range, most on a 1:1 ratio. Investigations touch a range of Crop and Soil Sciences’ disciplines including organic crop production, plant pathology, natural resources, and environmental science. “The REU program benefits our mentors too. These students bring an infusion of enthusiasm when the building is usually quiet. We definitely get a lift from them,” Heitman said. In return, REU students get the input and oversight of an expert mentor who has a vested interest in their success. REU student projects are matched with existing research efforts and often produce results propelling university research.
This year’s projects included topics on organic amendment offgassing, pine plantation management, turfgrass herbicide tolerance, and enzyme inhibitors for soybean fertilization, among others. Not your typical undergrad studies. Their research projects run the course of the 10 weeks allowing them to follow the scientific method from trusty hypothesis to the sometimes surprising conclusion. The program is intended to simulate the grad school experience of working with a mentor, developing hard science skills and relating with a lab group.
Dr. Owen Duckworth is the BESST program co-leader and one of this year’s mentors. He talked about the personal connections the REU program creates, “We work closely with our students while they are here on campus, checking in on their progress at least weekly. But we also keep in touch after the program concludes – for years sometimes. We reconnect at professional meetings and even continue to do work together. I’ve jointly authored three documents with former students: one has been published, one submitted, and one on the drafting table now.”
Environmental Career Options
The BESST program is all about research but takes students beyond the lab. In addition to the initial week-long geomorphology crash course, students attend multiple field trips and workshops on professional development and career options. One of this year’s visits was to RTI International to meet with staff scientists. RTI experts discussed environmental contaminants and their global intervention strategies to improve air and water quality. “We want to show students all the career path possibilities – in academia and beyond,” Heitman said.
Shaping Graduate School Choices
One recipient of this year’s REU investment is Sophie Maffie. “My home college [Oberlin College] is really small. There are only a few people in my major. I applied to BESST because I wanted to explore the field of soils in-depth,” she said, “There are so many opportunities to specialize at a large school. The breadth is amazing!” Sophie worked with Crop and Soil Sciences mentor Dr. Matthew Ricker to oversee her project on mapping coal deposits from mining runoff in floodplain soils. “It’s surprising to see how communities are affected even where mining was never a prominent industry – up to 100 miles away,” Ricker commented. “[Sophie’s research will help] map these coal deposits to alert future users and guide recommendations on land applications.”
Not all students come with a defined career path. Sophie is still weighing her options, “I definitely want to pursue my master’s. I want to study the impact of humans on our environment. That’s my passion. Maybe I’ll work in research – I love developing important questions and possible solutions.” Anne Bonds came to BESST this year from the University of Michigan, “NC State wasn’t even on my radar screen for grad school before this program. I had no idea there were departments focused on work like this!”
Most REU students are grad-school bound before joining the program. But their summer experience usually cements and hones it. Current NC State graduate student Cara Mathers participated in the BESST REU program three years ago, “It was one of the best summers of my life – getting to know and work with other like-minded students. I got to know for better or worse what real research felt like. [BESST] totally focused my plans for higher education.” She found her educational home in Crop & Soil Sciences. Mathers just completed her master’s study in soil physics and will be continuing at NC State for a PhD in soil management.
The REU on-campus program recently culminated in a poster-style symposium where students presented their findings to faculty experts. But that was just the warm-up. Students’ final requirement is a presentation at a professional event such as the National Tri Society Meeting. “It’s pretty nerve wrecking for [the students]. But learning to present their work is part of the process,” Dr. Heitman explained with a smile. A process that continues Crop & Soil Sciences’ tradition of best results, no matter how it is spelled.
Want to Learn More?
Are you an environmental science undergraduate looking for ways to enrich your research skills? Or know a student who is? Visit NC State’s Office of Undergraduate Research to learn more about the many summer programs available on campus.