SWS Sponsors Youth Science Fair Awards

By Jessica Southard Pardo, Communications Specialist, Soil and Water Sciences Department 

On Tuesday, January 31st, 2017, the Soil and Water Sciences Department presented three awards at the Alachua Region Science and Engineering Fair Awards Ceremony, held at the Lincoln Middle School Auditorium. SWS graduate students, Katie McCurley and Josh Papacek, presented the SWS awards to the students, which were signed by our Departmental Chair, Dr. Ramesh Reddy.

SWS Award Winners Sophia Shah, Hannah Palka, and Benjamin Hahn, accepting their awards on stage at the Alachua Region Science and Engineering Fair.

Benjamin Hahn of Ft. Clarke Middle School was presented with the first place award in Earth and Environmental Sciences, Junior Division. His project was entitled Air Potato Leaf Beetles: Annihilating the Perpetater. Sophia Shah and Hannah Palka, both of Oak View Middle School, were presented with the first place award in Plant Sciences, Junior Division, with their group project entitled How Does the Concentration of Glycerin Affect the Decomposition of Organic Materials. Sidhika Balachandar of Buchholz High School was presented with the first place award in the senior division competition for Earth and Environmental Sciences. His project was entitled Novel Graphene Oxide Based Technology for Ultraefficient Nanofiltration.

Peter Nkedi-Kizza, SWS Professor of Soil Physics and Hydrology, began the collaboration between the Soil and Water Sciences Department and the Alachua Region Science and Engineering Fair in 2006. That year, the student winners of the departmental awards were invited to present their projects at a departmental seminar on March 27th, giving them the opportunity for feedback before going on to the state competition. The Department has continued to sponsor awards since then, inspiring local youth to pursue their interests in soil and water sciences. The awards which the Department sponsors vary each year, but are always affiliated with soil, water, and environmental sciences. SWS faculty and graduate students often volunteer their time prior to the event to help local participants prepare their projects. Students and faculty have also served as judges at local school science fairs and have judged the regional competition.

All of the winners of the SWS sponsored awards will go on to the state science fair which will be held March 28-30th in Lakeland, Florida.

Featured New Faculty: Masanori Fujimoto

By Jessica Southard Pardo, Communications Specialist, Soil and Water Sciences Department 

Since Masanori Fujimoto was a small child, he always wanted to understand things – how does this work, why does that look a certain way, how did this form? That juvenile curiosity led to a passion for answering those questions, and ultimately, his brand-new position as a Research Assistant Professor here in Soil and Water Sciences.

Fujimoto was born and raised in Japan. There, he was taught basic physics, statistics, chemistry, and other fundamental core subject areas that prepared him for a rigorous engineering major in his undergraduate studies.

“But thinking about application alone is not who I am,” Fujimoto said. “I craved an understanding of fundamental processes.”

Upon graduating with his Bachelor’s Degree in Japan, Fujimoto began to shift his educational focus, becoming increasingly more interested in fundamental research.

“For every issue to solve there is a practical side, but if you dig deep into what the problem is, most of the time, you encounter questions regarding fundamental processes,” Fujimoto said.

Fujimoto obtained his Master’s in Civil and Environmental Engineering and his dual PhD in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics / Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior at Michigan State University. During his PhD program at MSU, his research was primarily focused on endangered fish species and the impact that human activities had on them.

“Almost all streams are dammed in Michigan,” Fujimoto said. “So I was looking at how Lake Sturgeon eggs were surviving in the face of the change in water temperature, water chemistry, flows, and depth in the downstream of those dams.”

“Microbial communities were actually assembled on the eggs and the assemblages were affected by those environmental factors, while 90% of eggs were killed primarily by microbes present on the egg surfaces,” Fujimoto said. “I was interested to learn the complicated three-way interactions of environmental factors, microbes and hosts.” See his results here.

Fujimoto’s focus during his post-doctoral research was primarily in microbial mediated biogeochemical cycles and aquatic invasive species that could affect those natural cycles of the Great Lakes.

“In one of my projects, I was looking at how people were transporting organisms via cargo ships and how those organisms were surviving and affecting the local ecosystems,” Fujimoto said.

It was in this research project, that Fujimoto became the first to use the ion torrent sequencing platform for the assessment of microbial community compositions and diversity during the ballast water treatment processes. Ion torrent sequencing is defined by UF Health as a type of next generation DNA sequencing that is based on the detection of hydrogen ions. It is different than other types of sequences in that no modified nucleotides or optics are used. Click here for the full definition of ion torrent sequencing.

As a pioneer in his field, Fujimoto comes to UF with a joint appointment in both the Soil and Water Sciences Department and in the Microbiology and Cell Science Department, giving Fujimoto a unique opportunity to take a look at those fundamental questions while deciphering a practical application for his answers.

“Scientific research provides information to change human behaviors,” Fujimoto said.

This shift in human behavior can have a significant impact on our environment and the conservation of our ecosystems, which Fujimoto believes is the most important endeavor that we as humans undertake as we progress through the early 21st century.

One of his passions in leaving a positive impact in environmental conservation, is instilling that desire in his students.

“I believe the best way for them (students) to acquire knowledge is through hands on experiences,” Fujimoto said. “I’d like to mentor undergraduate students through research both in lab and in field.”

Now at UF, his primary research focus is going to be the Stormwater Treatment Areas in the Everglades.

“Nutrients coming into aquatic systems are causing algal blooms,” Fujimoto said. “These blooms can subsequently lead to the reduction of oxygen levels which kills aquatic fauna – causing a cascade of change in the food chain.”

“To minimize nutrient loading into the Everglades system, a buffer zone was created along the Northside of the Everglades, which are basically enormous constructed wetlands,” Fujimoto said.

Fujimoto plans to continue to study nutrient cycles in the Everglades, building off of his post-doctoral work in University of Michigan and monitoring, particularly, the phosphorus. “A lot of phosphorus is applied in agriculture,” Fujimoto said. “And phosphorus balance is important to the future of agriculture and ecosystem managements.”

Fujimoto will look at questions like – Where does the phosphorus go? Is it removed by plants and by microorganisms? How do algae come into play? Can we stop phosphorus from coming into the Everglades at all? Can we recover phosphorus from somewhere in treatment process?

As he delves into answering some of these questions, he also has several other research projects in mind, including:

  • Utilizing agricultural wastes to make biogas and reduce organic carbon and phosphorus release into environments
  • Springwater chemistry and the microbial communities of freshwater stream ecosystems

As Fujimoto looks toward the conservation of our ecosystems, he believes that two things will contribute positively to achieving that goal:

1) Bridging the gap between scientists/academia and the general public.

2) Stimulating kids’ interest in science.

We look forward to Dr. Fujimoto’s unique contributions to our department, our community, and our environment.

 

 

Jango Bhadha, Assistant Professor in the Soil and Water Sciences Department, Everglades Research and Education Center, has been involved in organizing a booth at the South Florida Fair in the ‘Discover the Outdoors’ tent. The display is all about sustainable agricultural practices and trying to educate folks about the importance of farming in the Glades area, according to Bhadha. Here is a synopsis of Dr. Bhadha’s experience, from Jango himself.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

By Jango Bhadha

Dr. Bhadha and his colleagues are all smiles at the South Florida Fair.

This year the South Florida Fair is from January 13-29, lasting for 17 days and including three full weekends. Over the past several years, the annual fair has incorporated a theme as a means of stimulating tourism as well as the educational and cultural interest of the residents of Palm Beach County. For instance, “Florida” was featured at the 1998 fair and “Alaska”, “Tales of the American West”, “New England”, “Hollywood”, “Having a Ball”, “Dreams, screams, thrills, chills”, “Party with the Animals”, “Washington D.C.” and “Las Vegas” were showcased in previous fairs. This year South Florida Fair visitors will experience the excitement of one of America’s greatest cities, New Orleans!

Straight from New Orleans’ Mardi Gras World, props, decorations and floats welcome Fairgoers as they enter the main exposition center. Food, music and street performers make New Orleans unique and all of that and more is part of this year’s South Florida Fair. A Mardi Gras Parade takes place daily, as beautiful themed floats ease their way through the Fairgrounds.

Dr. Bhadha instructing a group of students at the fair.

One of the greatest aspects of the annual fair is its agricultural and livestock exhibits which clearly provide the greatest variety of such exhibits anywhere within Palm Beach County. Even though agriculture is such a tremendous part of Palm Beach County’s economic base, many school children have never been exposed to it. However, at the annual South Florida Fair, not only can they see and learn all about agriculture, but can even witness a calf being born, or learn how a dairy is operated. The annual fair attracts over 500,000 people through its turnstiles.

School groups can visit the fair on special dates for an Educational Experience. This year visits consist of guided tours to designated areas, unique demonstrations, and “take back to class” packets to reinforce the field trip experience.

Students listen as Dr. Bhadha presents in the ‘Discover the Outdoors’ tent.

One such demonstration is organized by myself, Dr. Jango Bhadha, representing the University of Florida (IFAS) Soil and Water Sciences Department, Everglades Research and Education Center. The demonstration is housed in ‘Discover the Outdoors’ tent and showcases topics related to the importance of soil conservation and sustainability; aquatic vegetation in Florida water bodies; common insects found in Florida soils; and a myriad of information regarding sugarcane, lettuce, rice, and the vegetables grown in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Upwards of 120 children daily get a chance to learn about farming practices in South Florida as part of the guided school tours. I think it is a great way for kids to “touch and feel” the different components of farming, ask questions, and learn concepts of sustainable agriculture from a young age. University of Florida faculty, staff and students volunteer their time to help setup the demonstration booth and man it throughout the day. We hope to continue this tradition every year as part of a public outreach effort.

Celebrate Florida Arbor Day

By Jessica Pardo, Communications Specialist, SWS

Tomorrow, January 20th, the Sunshine State celebrates Arbor Day – a day set aside for people to plant and care for trees, as they are reminded of the importance of Florida’s forests.

Arbor Day, which is nationally celebrated on the last Friday in April, has been (unofficially) celebrated since 1872. It began when J. Sterling Morton, an avid agriculturist who had recently relocated his family to Nebraska, noticed the need for trees. In an effort to provide lumber, shade, and windbreaks for the soil, he proposed a day dedicated to the replanting and preservation of trees. Click here for the full history of Arbor Day.

Today, Arbor day is celebrated at the state level on many different days, depending on the optimal planting time for that particular region.

Harvested lumber is the largest agricultural commodity in Florida, according to Tim Martin, professor and co-interim director of the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation. Trees have a significant economic impact on our state, as it is estimated that just one acre of Florida forest provides more than $5,000 of service to Florida residents. In this article, Martin mentions clean water and air, wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity as just a few benefits of forests.

The foundation for a healthy tree starts with healthy soil. If you plan on planting a tree in honor of Florida Arbor Day, here are some handy tips from IFAS Extension to help you prepare your soil for planting.

Illustration of proper tree planting by UF/IFAS.

  1. Dig the hole 1.5 times the width of the root ball.
  2. Fill back in the soil around the root ball but never place any soil over it.
  3. Use slow-release (or controlled-release) fertilizer on top of the root ball and backfill soil.
  4. Apply a 3-inch-thick layer of mulch around the plant to discourage weeds.

Trying to decide what type of tree to plant? Here is a Florida-Friendly Plant List that breaks down the optimal region, soil pH, and soil moisture for various Florida-friendly trees. It also lists the growth height/spread, optimum light range, and the types of wildlife that it will attract, to help you make an informed decision.

Soils are a limited natural resource that have taken thousands of years to form. The preservation of our soils are essential to producing timber, food, and fiber, along with maintaining healthy ecosystems and habitats. Tomorrow, celebrate Florida forests, celebrate Florida soils, and plant a Florida-friendly tree!

Happy Florida Arbor Day, folks!

Jessica Southard Pardo, Communication Specialist, SWS

Jehangir Bhadha, Assistant Professor, SWS

Dr. Jehangir Bhadha joined SWS as an Assistant Professor of Nutrient Management at the Everglades Research and Education Center (EREC) in Belle Glade, Florida. His research priorities are in the field of water quality, soil sustainability and sustainable agriculture. Bhadha received a B.S. from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, India, MS degree from UF (Geological Sciences) and PhD from the UF Soil and Water Sciences Department. Bhadha served two postdoctoral assignments, one in Gainesville and another at the EREC. In 2013 he was appointed as an Assistant Research Scientist at EREC, to conduct research on developing Best Management Practices to reduce phosphorus loads from farm canals in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

In an effort to get to know Dr. Bhadha more personally, I asked him a few questions.

jango-4

Bhadha is captured monitoring water quality in farm drainage discharge.

At what point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a soil scientist?

During my undergraduate program (Bachelor of Science) at St. Xavier’s College in Bombay, India, I was faced with the decision of either majoring in Physics, Economics or Geology (Earth Sciences). Besides the fact that I would score good grades in Geology, what motivated me to major in it was the “fieldwork” component. I thoroughly enjoyed going on fieldtrips to remote parts of India collecting bags of rocks that weighed heavier than me, identifying the minerals with a hand lens and ultimately being able to map the geologic sequences. Ever since then, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to pursue a career that would involve fieldwork, whether it be soil, water or agricultural sciences.

What led to your move to UF?

Back in 1999-2000 there really was not much career option for Geology majors in India. And even fewer options for applied geology, which is what I wanted to pursue. So in 2000 I decided to apply to US schools to be enrolled in a Master’s program. UF was one of three offers I had to choose from. I chose UF simply because of its location; close to the beaches, and hot weather. I also had a colleague from Xavier’s college enrolled at UF’s Geology Department at that time, and his presence gave me added reassurance to move to Florida.

jango2

Dr. Bhadha and a student are seen here conducting groundwater sampling from flooded rice fields.

What are you most excited about as a new UF/IFAS faculty member?

Being a new faculty member I am most excited about mentoring graduate students. Assist them to develop their ideas into research projects. Helping them understand the finer points of doing scientific research, at the same time being academically competitive. I am also excited about working on new projects, and making new discoveries.

What is your vision for the Everglades REC and its impact on the Florida Everglades?

I envision good things coming out of Everglades REC in the future. Over the past few years, the number of graduate students affiliated with the EREC has increased, and so has the number of faculty and staff. I envision more emphasis on integrated research which will allow faculty and students to compete for grant opportunities that would have otherwise not existed. The Florida Everglades is directly impacted by the work being conducted within the EREC and the Everglades Agricultural Area. Water quantity and quality are two major areas of research that can have a direct impact on the Everglades and these issues are being addressed by the researchers, growers and regulators. By promoting concepts of sustainable agricultural practices in the EAA I hope for growers to continue farming for future generations, and improve the quality of our surrounding natural ecosystems.

jango1

Bhadha is shown here conducting sediment sampling from farm ditches in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

What part of your research are you most proud of?

I have always been proud of the applied aspect of all my research project undertakings. Also, I have always been proud of the way in which we approach a research project. Being able to conceptualize a solution to a problem is what I get most excited about. It is very fulfilling to me to take time at the start of any project to do a thorough literature review so as to understand the constraints and limitations of any system. And lastly, I am proud of being able to take chances, trying something different, “thinking outside the box” so to speak.

What do you foresee as being the biggest challenge for the Everglades?

I foresee changes in climatic patterns as the biggest challenge for the Everglades. Prolonged droughts during the summer months and wet winters can significantly affect water management and quality in south Florida. In addition, there is also the threat of sea-level rise, and increase in salinity could cause major shifts in ecosystem balances.

Do you have any exciting projects or collaborations underway?

I would like to think all my projects/collaborations are exciting. At the moment, I have a couple of projects that I am thrilled about. One of them is trying to test the feasibility of using aquatic vegetation as biofilters to reduce nutrient loads in farm canals. The other is to start a biochar initiative that utilizes organic feedstocks as soil amendment to grow vegetables, particularly on depleted sandy soils. I have also been looking at the cultural and environmental benefits of cultivating flooded rice in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Most of my projects tend to entail grower collaboration in some form or another. Next summer I wish to organize a half day training for local rice growers that will help us integrate ideas and ultimately improve yields.

What motivates you most to go to work every day?

My colleagues are my biggest motivation to go to work every day, this includes fellow professors, students, interns, and staff. I have gotten to know most of them personally and they are always there to help me whenever I needed it, professionally or otherwise.

Where/how did you get the nickname Jango?

My birth name is Jehangir (meaning conqueror of the world in Persian), who was a famous Moghul emperor. My parents would call me ‘Jangu’ while I was growing up in India. At the age of 17 when I joined college my friends decided to drop the ‘u’ and replace it with an ‘o’; and ever since I have the nickname ‘Jango’. Although my parents still use ‘Jangu’.