Agriculture mentors focus on field work

The College of Agricultural Sciences will bustle with research activities this summer as professors guide students in multiple studies.

Jon Schoonover, an associate professor of forestry, will mentor six graduate students and one undergraduate student as they dive into research projects such as the role of a native bamboo species, using various vegetation species and charcoal to reduce the force of certain fertilizers, a tillage project that focuses on soil quality impacts, a project that tracks the environmental fate of fertilizers in soil water and groundwater and methodologies on concentrated flow paths in agricultural systems.

Joe Zhou, a graduate student and research assistant from China studying plant, soil, and agricultural systems, waters newly transplanted soybean plants June 5 near the University Farms greenhouse. Zhou has been growing the genetically mutated plants in the greenhouse all semester and will harvest the leaves in about three weeks to extract DNA. "We are looking to determine whether genetically altering the plants' DNA can create more resistance to threatening environmental factors," Zhou said. — Tiffany Blanchette | Daily Egyptian

“Our research program in the soil and water quality lab is very applied, and students get exposed to various hands-on methodologies and study designs that will hopefully benefit them in their future careers,” Schoonover said.

He said the importance of summertime research to the students is that they have more time to focus on field work as they generally have less obligations to coursework.

Since many forestry studies depend on sampling runoff from rain events that can occur at any time, research during regular semesters can prove to be difficult and tends to deprive students of rest, he said.

After a two-mile hike into the woods at the SIUC Touch of Nature facility, graduate forestry student Natalia Mejia, from Colombia, works to survey the area’s water sources for research with the voluntary help of Jessica Pease, a graduate student from Harrisonburg, Va., studying forestry.

Research for forestry is usually done over large areas of land, so hiking deep into the woods is normal but time-consuming, Pease said.

She will soon collaborate with undergraduate students to dedicate most of her time to research projects.

Choosing to participate in research over the summer provides valuable experience and opportunities, said Bryan Musungu, a graduate student from Fayetteville, N.C., studying plant, soil and agricultural systems.

Schoonover said students generally take leadership roles in their projects and perform most of the data collection in the field.

He said faculty members develop research and write grants so they can mentor student research assistants.

Musungu, a research assistant conducting studies on the affects of mycotoxins, or mold, contamination on the maize grain, mentors various undergraduate students that help him understand aspects not within his expertise.

Computational and plant biologists, for example, contribute vital skills to the research he has been working on since October 2011, he said.

He began researching the effects of mycotoxins on maize to discover whether it can be naturally genetically altered to resist contamination, Musungu said.

He said the research is important because the contamination of maize, which is the main crop in Kenya where Musungu’s family is from, is the cause of many deaths and can also cause liver cancer.

“Conducting and contributing to research is a long process but all the hard work pays off eventually,” Musungu said.

Undergraduates that work with graduate research assistants, he said, can benefit from dedicating their time over the summer to have the opportunity to become a published author in an academic journal article.

Musungu, who has been researching two projects with a high impact factor, has already begun the process for publishing both of his studies in academic journals.

“To be published as an undergraduate is great experience and they also get good references from working with a team,” Musungu said.

Students are encouraged to develop critical thinking, analyzing, reporting, written and oral skills and to utilize new technologies in their disciplines, Schoonover said.

“Research provides students with the tools to become more marketable in their careers, provides opportunities to network with other professionals and prepares them for advanced degrees,” he said.


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About Tiffany Blanchette

Senior at SIUC majoring in photojournalism and zoology. Can be easily reached at or 618-536-3311 ext. 254.

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