Horticulture Assistantships Allow Students to Get Their Hands Dirty in Pursuit of Science

August 5th, 2020

by Ann Y. Robinson

The Horticulture Research Station at Iowa State University continues its tradition of cultivating graduate student science, even in the midst of a pandemic. 

Since 2011, the research farm, located north of Ames, has supported two to three assistantships for students pursuing a master’s degree. The students conduct on-farm research and learn about the day-to-day management of horticulture enterprises. The students work at the station from May to October for up to three years, often assisting faculty as research assistants.  

“These positions are important to Iowa State University’s horticultural education and research, since there’s not a lot of opportunity in this state to gain experience with horticulture crops. Our undergraduate and graduate students get training here that would be hard to come by otherwise,” said Nick Howell, superintendent at the research station. “The student researchers also often pursue projects that may directly benefit producers in the future.” 

ISU graduate student Olivia Meyer has an assistantship at the Horticulture Research Station where she is part of a research team testing a new sprayer with intelligent technology. Photo by Chris Gannon/Iowa State University. 

The graduate students bring added experience that helps keep things running smoothly at the research farm and provide valuable leadership to undergraduate student workers, Howell added. 

Evaluating a smart sprayer

Olivia Meyer, from Dubuque, is one of the new horticulture graduate student recruits at the research station. She already has a master’s degree in kinesiology under her belt but decided to change direction, inspired by experience working on an organic farm.  

Now at the horticulture research station, she’s part of a field research team evaluating the performance of a new, LiDAR-based Intelligent Sprayer that can reduce spray volume and potential for chemical drift. They are looking at the new tool’s effectiveness in fighting fire blight or other common pathogens of apples compared to typical airblast sprayers, when used alone or combined with weather-based warning systems. Her project, led by Mark Gleason, professor of plant pathology and microbiology, also involves collaborators at Ohio State University.

Meyer’s work, though, isn’t only focused on her own project: She also helps with routine, hands-on tasks on the farm from pulling weeds to helping maintain others’ research plots.

“I’m just getting started,” she said, “but I can tell that the assistantship is going to be extremely beneficial to building a range of skills that will be useful in the future.”

“I also feel fortunate right now to be working in a job where I can maintain social distancing and work outdoors most of the time,” Meyer said.

Studying biochar’s benefits

ISU graduate student Taylor Mauch has an assistantship at the Horticulture Research Station where she is researching biochar as a soil amendment for vegetable crops. Photo by Chris Gannon/Iowa State University. 

Taylor Mauch, from Ankeny, has always known she wanted a career working outdoors, around plants. She has also been influenced by seeing “very different” agronomic practices in Haiti and Uganda, countries she had the opportunity to visit through church and study abroad programs.  

She was offered the assistantship to pursue a master’s in horticulture after working at the research station as an undergraduate.

In her new role, Mauch is researching biochar as a soil amendment for bell peppers, cauliflower or other vegetable crops. She is studying how biochar, a charcoal-like material produced when biomass is pyrolyzed, holds plant nutrients and makes them available over time.

The research, under Ajay Nair, associate professor of horticulture and extension vegetable specialist, will explore the economics of biochar as a practical agronomic practice, as well as its impacts on plant health and yields.

Someday she hopes to take what she’s learning to help farmers in the Tropics.

She feared the pandemic would delay her research. But she said the farm staff have been proactive in helping get the project underway as planned.

“The farm staff have provided great training,” Mauch said. “This year, they have gone above and beyond to implement safety protocols that include social distancing, setting up additional sanitizing stations and providing free face coverings to everyone for situations when we need to work more closely with others.”

“I feel incredibly lucky to have this opportunity,” Mauch said. “We’re getting our hands dirty and learning so much, including the exacting work of how to set up and maintain research experiments. I don’t take it for granted.”