Doctoral student named Future Leader in Science

Ann Bybee-Finley, a second-year doctoral student at Cornell studying cropping systems resilience with a focus on Northeastern dairy producers, has been named a 2017 Future Leader in Science by the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) and Soil Science Society of America (SSSA).

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‘Servant-leader’ role suits Weber-Shirk, AguaClara program

‘Servant-leader’ role suits Weber-Shirk, AguaClara program

AguaClara team leaders

Tom Fleischman/Cornell Chronicle. AguaClara team leads, left-to-right, Zoe Maisel ’18, Natalie Mottl ’18 and Erica Marroquin ’18, are pictured in the program’s Hollister Hall lab as students work in the background.

Monroe Weber-Shirk is the founder and director of the AguaClara program at Cornell, which has brought clean drinking water to approximately 65,000 people in Honduras over the last decade.

But his title does not mean that Weber-Shirk is calling all the shots. Far from it.

The current model for the highly successful service-learning program has evolved over the last few years, and his role has become more “suggester-in-chief” than head honcho. Much of the heavy lifting involved in the smooth operation of AguaClara falls on the students themselves, especially the three “team leads,” who oversee the group of around 60 students.

“Knowledge is no longer flowing down from professor to student – it’s primarily flowing student to student,” said Weber-Shirk, senior lecturer in civil and environmental engineering. “I’m providing guidance, but I’m no longer the source of knowledge. I’m a source of knowledge.”

The team leads oversee the research advisers, each of whom leads one of 19 research teams. The three-person teams focus on individual aspects of AguaClara – everything from filtration to public relations.

“We pretty much do everything,” Erica Marroquin ’18, an environmental engineering major in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering (BEE), said of the team leads. “Monroe will give us ideas and suggestions regarding fundraisers and presentations, and we do everything for it. We work a lot with our public relations team, we have a team lead [Natalie Mottl ’18] who does a lot with outreach and things like that. Pretty much, it’s all us.”

Zoe Maisel ’18, an environmental engineering major in BEE who’s in her second semester as a team lead, said it’s empowering to everyone involved that the learning takes place in a lateral direction rather than from the top down.

“I’m learning from my peers, and we’re guided by Monroe,” she said. “It’s not like he decrees something and we go along with it. We’re driven by the common understanding of what we’re trying to do, but how we get there is very much up to us.”

Mottl, who’s a civil engineering major in CEE and is in her fifth semester with the program, admitted to having struggled with the cooperative nature of the learning environment early on.

“I’d never sat down and looked at a problem and said, ‘How do I solve this problem by myself, with no instruction?’” she said. “Usually you see it on a projector and in a textbook, and then you write it down. There’s no textbook for this.”

AguaClara: Sustainable Water Supply Project is a three-credit course listed in the university’s Community-Engaged Learning Course Guide. Richard Kiely, a senior fellow for program evaluation in the Office of Engagement Initiatives, said AguaClara is an “exemplar” of Engaged Cornell in terms of service learning and community involvement.

“The long-term commitment of faculty leaders like Monroe and students who have participated in the program over the years, to making the world a better place through building meaningful relationships across borders … is simply awe-inspiring,” he said.

AguaClara has changed countless lives – and not just of the thousands of Hondurans who can now just turn on a tap and get clear water to drink. Students’ lives are changed, too – especially after a two-week trip to Honduras, which Weber-Shirk leads every January, to visit the facilities his program has helped build and stay with the people whose lives have been made better.

“They are a lot more aware of the incredible privilege we have,” he said, “to assume that you can turn on a tap and get safe drinking water. There’s also this recognition that we have so much in common, even with people who live in very different situations from us.”

This article is written by Tom Fleischman and was published in the Cornell Chronicle on March 16, 2017.

Housefly’s love of manure could lead to sustainable feed

Housefly’s love of manure could lead to sustainable feed

Lindsay France/University Photography
Vimal Selvaraj, left, associate professor of integrative physiology, works with Josh Goddard ’18.

Could the common housefly, which has evolved to recycle nutrients from waste products, help address the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ warning that food production will need to double by 2050 to feed a growing world population?

An interdisciplinary team of Cornell researchers in animal science, entomology, nutritional sciences, business, microbiology and immunology is investigating a system for using housefly larvae to biodegrade manure and harvest the larvae for use as protein-rich animal feed. Their research is published in the Feb. 7 issue of the journal PLOS One.

Larva meal could address a pressing need to replace fishmeal in aquaculture. The massive demand for fishmeal to feed all kinds of livestock has led to overfishing of fish stocks worldwide. Larva feed is proving to be a sustainable alternative; it contains the right nutritional ingredients for feeding fish, poultry and other livestock.

“I think feed from insects is the future of animal farming,” said Vimal Selvaraj, associate professor of integrative physiology in the Department of Animal Science and a senior author of the study. “We are talking about something that has been untapped. Insects are very rapid biomass generators, and they do not have negative impacts when used as meal, as far as we know.”

The researchers – for the first time – analyzed how efficiently housefly larvae recycled nutrients from dairy cattle manure, and they measured the nutritional value of the resulting larva meal as a feed ingredient.

“We concluded from the study that the overall composition of larva meal with respect to all nutrients, including amino acids and minerals, is comparable to fishmeal and would be a good alternative for use as a protein-rich feed ingredient for livestock,” Selvaraj said.

Their analysis showed that fly larvae lessened the overall mass of the manure and reduced total nitrogen by nearly 25 percent and phosphorus by more than 6 percent. Reducing levels of these nutrients in manure makes a more suitable compost. Otherwise, untreated manure used as fertilizer leads to runoff of excess nitrogen and phosphorus into streams and rivers, which causes eutrophication in lakes and oceans, contaminates groundwater and can spread disease.

When researchers measured the nutritional values of the larva meal, they found it rivaled the highest protein feed ingredients, including widely used fishmeal. The larva meal contained 60 percent protein, had a well-balanced amino acid profile and 20 percent fat that was high in monounsaturated fats. The meal was also found to be a good source of calcium and phosphorus.

Fly larvae yields equal about 2 percent of manure weight, which has led some economists to question the profitability of fly larva meal. Yet the U.S. livestock industry generates some 335 million tons of dry manure per year.

“In farming-dense regions there is enough manure available to have a substantial impact on larva meal production,” Selvaraj said, adding, “This paper is a first step toward realizing this potential.”

Mahmoud Hussein is a postdoctoral associate in Selvaraj’s lab and is the paper’s first author. Co-authors include Jan Nyrop, professor of entomology; Patricia Johnson, professor of animal science; Mark Milstein, director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise and clinical professor of management and organizations in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management; Helene Marquis, professor of microbiology; Thomas Brenna, professor of nutritional sciences; Quirine Ketterings, professor of animal science; and Josh Goddard ‘18, an undergraduate studying animal science.

The study was funded by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University and a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Charitable Trust Undergraduate Research Grant.

This article is written by Krishna Ramanujan and was published in the Cornell Chronicle on March 1, 2017.

Climate change in Vietnam spurs students to speak up

Thúy Tranviet/Provided
Students harvest vegetables on a farm in Bến Tre, the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.

Climate change in Vietnam spurs students to speak up

Ten Cornell students spent two weeks of their winter break on a journey through Vietnam, listening to farmers and community members, and seeing the effects of climate change firsthand.

The trip was part of an interdisciplinary course, “Climate Change Awareness and Service Learning in the Mekong Delta,” led by Michael Hoffmann and Thúy Tranviet. In the fall, the students took classes that introduced them to global climate change and Vietnamese language, culture and history.

From Jan. 3-18 the group traveled throughout the Mekong Delta, attending lectures from experts at Can Tho and Ton Duc Thang universities, and engaging in service learning activities in the local communities.

Vietnam, with more than 2,000 miles of coastline, is a major exporter of fish and shrimp, valued at about $7 billion per year. The country is also the second-largest producer of coffee and one of the top exporters of rice in the world.

“Vietnam grows much of its own food but is also an important agricultural exporter,” said Hoffmann, the executive director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions and professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The Vietnamese are resilient, but climate change will be a real test.”

The Mekong Delta, where 17 million people live, is one of the most at-risk areas in the world from climate change, Hoffmann said. Farmers in the region depend on a stable environment to cultivate crops at 5 feet above sea level. Salt water intrusion, due in part to sea level rise, is already affecting agriculture in the region, as Marc Alessi ’18 saw firsthand.

“Last year, Vietnamese farmers suffered the worst drought ever recorded,” Alessi said. “In one commune, 100 percent of their rice crop was destroyed due to salt intrusion and drought.”

Vietnam farming

Thúy Tranviet/Provided Cornell students plant mangrove trees in Cần Giờ Biosphere Reserve in Vietnam.

Tranviet, senior lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences and a 2016 Engaged Faculty Fellow, said, “The purpose of the course is not just to tell the story of climate change, but to put a face to it, of the people who are directly impacted by it. The service-learning activities are crucial in providing the students opportunities to engage with the communities to have a more meaningful experience.”

For Jeff Fralick ’18, the trip was a chance to talk directly to people already experiencing the consequences of a changing climate. The environmental science and sustainability major said Vietnamese farmers would rarely have an opportunity to come to the U.S. to share their experience, and he felt it was important to give a voice for their concerns.

“In Vietnam, the sea levels are rising,” he said. “There are droughts. The rains are increasing and fall at different times than they did in the past. It’s important to come back and tell that story.”

Both instructors will team up again this semester for the third component of the course. This spring, the class is holding weekly meetings where the students reflect and report on the trip, give presentations, develop media outreach and complete final projects. Plans are also in the works to visit Washington, D.C., where students will share the facts about climate change and the impacts it is already having.

Climate change can be a charged topic for some in the U.S. So says Kerry Mullins ’18, a student in the course: “I know that for most Americans, climate change is not on their list of top concerns.”

That is, if it’s on their list at all. “We have people here who don’t even think it exists,” said Alessi.

It’s why part of this spring’s portion of the course is focused on outreach and communication about what the students learned. It’s an effort that started with blog posts the students wrote while in Vietnam. Hoffmann said they’ll be looking for “any and all ways to tell the story.”

Students like Stevanica Augustine ’19 and Gail Fletcher ‘17 know that a story focused on people will be more effective in communicating the experience of the farmers in the Mekong Delta. “I want to make climate change as personal as possible,” Augustine said.

“Statistics can only illustrate so much,” Fletcher said, “and have a limit to how much change they can incite.”


This article is written by Melanie Cordova and was published in the Cornell Chronicle on February 22, 2017.

New tool gives apple farms hope in fight against spring freezes

Gregory M. Peck/Provided
Apple blossoms killed by a spring frost in 2012, after a long stretch of warm days.

New tool gives apple farms hope in fight against spring freezes

This February’s warm weather is nice in the Northeast, but apple farmers may pay a price if winter roars back. To help growers assess precarious temperatures in turbulent springs, the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions has developed a new Apple Freeze Riskdecision tool.

“I think the warm weather we’re seeing this week may push the apple trees into vulnerable stages,” said Art DeGaetano, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and director of Cornell’s Northeast Regional Climate Center.

Apples are an important cog in New York’s agriculture industry, which produces over 29 million bushels of apples annually, employing over 10,000 people directly and 7,500 indirectly.

Apple trees need dormancy and cold weather so that springtime buds develop properly. When early spring temperatures rise consistently above the low 40 degree mark, the trees get ready to bud, said DeGaetano.

Through their phenological stages in warming weather, the apple trees develop silver tips, green tips and then bloom.

“They become less and less tolerant of cold, and if a freeze hits after a warm spell, that’s when apple producers begin to see bud damage – and that takes an economic toll,” said DeGaetano, who with Rick Moore, research support specialist, built the new risk-assessment tool. Development of the tool was made possible thanks to Federal Capacity Funds and funding from the New World Foundation.

The Apple Freeze Risk tool shows minimum temperatures for the most recent 30 days, provides a 6-day temperature forecast and shows the current stage of development in tree varieties. Apple trees are currently dormant, and only a sustained period of 25 below zero temperatures can damage this season’s crop. But as days warm, the buds’ tolerance for freezing lessens.

“The benefit of this tool is that a farmer can access information about a specific location anywhere in the Northeast, and can get detail to within a 2.5-mile grid of their orchard,” said Allison Chatrchyan, director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions. The institute established the Cornell Climate Smart Farming (CSF) program, which is developing tools to support individualized, real-time and data-driven management, through what’s known as “Digital Agriculture”.

“With climate change already occurring, our winters are getting warmer, and farmers are asking us for specific tools and information about what they can do to reduce the risks on their farm, including from freezes,” Chatrchyan said. “The apple tool was built based on stakeholder input, and with the help of our NYS CSF Extension Team, which is training farmers about climate risk and adaptation.”

One likely user of this new tool will be Mark Doyle, manager of Fishkill Farms in Hopewell Junction, New York, which grows apples, peaches, nectarines, currants and cherries. He is concerned about early warm weather and freezing weather afterward, as he examines factors such as temperature inversions (warm air above cold air) and whether to employ either mechanical or thermal methods to heat the orchard on frigid nights.

Said Doyle: “Along with other factors, I will be looking at this tool to understand the weather situation in front of me and the freeze risk facing our apple trees.”


This article is written by Blaine Friedlander and was published in the Cornell Chronicle on February 24, 2017.

Water sensor moves from basic research to promising business

A water sensor technology that began as basic research at Cornell is blooming into a business that fills a vital need for grape, nut, apple and other growers. While current water sensing tools are expensive, inaccurate or labor intensive, the new sensor tells growers when their plants need irrigation with accurate,…

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Childhood Nutrition & School Food Interventions in the Southern Tier

In Tompkins County, about 35% of children qualify for free or reduced meals in schools, meaning their families’ incomes are at least 130% of the federal poverty level. Subsidized school meal qualification rates are commonly used as population level poverty indicators. The reliance on this measure of poverty also speaks…

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