University of Missouri graduate students Shannon King and Rachel Owen spent the first Sunday of November in Baltimore speaking to a room full of Global Plant Council members and guests about the importance of science communication – especially for graduate students who are beginning their scientific careers.
King and Owen shared their experiences from a recent international trip in August, when they traveled with a group of MU faculty, staff, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to China for a scientific workshop. The group had an opportunity to share their research and, in turn, heard about the studies taking place at China Agricultural University, in Beijing, and at the Center for Agricultural Water Research in China, which is located in the arid region of the Gansu Province in the northwest part of the country.
“When I take a picture of a corn nodal root, I’m taking a picture of it in the most boring way so that I can get the most data,” King said. “While visiting China, we had the opportunity to really think outside of the box. Instead of thinking about the scientific value of a photo or video, our first thought was focused on what story our photo or video is telling. I had never looked at things that way before.
“Opportunities of this nature allow graduate students to really develop their science communication skills. It furthers graduate education.”
The trip to China was a byproduct of a large National Science Foundation (NSF) grant earned by the University of Missouri. Two years ago, a group from MU was awarded a four-year, $4.2 million grant by NSF to study the physiological genomics of maize nodal root growth under drought. The principal investigator on the grant is Bob Sharp, professor in the Division of Plant Sciences and director of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group (IPG).
The grant and the IPG were both reasons that King (Department of Biochemistry) was interested in joining Mizzou. She earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry, with an emphasis in biochemistry, from Northwest Missouri State University. She also minored in agronomy.
“I have an agriculture background, but I also really enjoy science,” King said. “I was interested in finding a school where I could do both. I was excited to find this grant because it’s the best of both worlds. MU does interdisciplinary research really well.”
The NSF grant is focused on the physiological and molecular process of how corn nodal roots grow during drought. Those roots have the ability to continue to grow under conditions of soil water deficiency, even when other parts of the plants have stopped.
“The nodal roots are incredibly important, as those roots get down deep into the soil and reach water,” King said. “They keep the plant alive and growing. It’s an important process. We’re trying to understand what the molecular processes are.
“To do that, we’re doing a lab-to-field comparison. We’re growing the plants in growth chambers in a laboratory because we do need a tightly controlled system. My part of the project is out in the field. I work at the Bradford Research Center with our rainout shelters. I’m testing the reproducibility of what they’re doing in the lab. It’s taking research from the lab to the field.”
King found a common language in talking with graduate students at China Agricultural University – who are also using rainout shelters in their work.
“One of my favorite things about the trip was seeing their facilities and equipment,” King said. “They have rainout shelters for their research – but they look completely different than the ones at Bradford. The rain we receive in Missouri is vastly different than what they receive in that area of China. It’s more of a slow, steady rain. They don’t have doors on their shelters and they’re not completely covered. Ours have to have doors and be completely covered, as the rain comes from all directions.
“It’s always exciting when you can talk about science with someone who is working at a problem from a different angle than you are.”
Owen’s research looks at how climate change impacts natural ecosystems. She is looking at wetlands in the Great Plains area.
“These wetlands only have water inputs from precipitation,” Owen said. “It’s hard to model how precipitation changes will affect wetlands in Missouri because we have a lot of resources to pump water into a wetland or remove that water. Managers don’t have the ability to do this in Great Plains wetlands.”
Owen (School of Natural Resources) had a direct link to several of the graduate students at China Agricultural University as well. Many of them were doing research on climate change.
“Some of our techniques are very similar – and there are definitely some differences,” Owen said. “They are using different technology. It’s interesting to see their approach. We’re studying such a unique ecosystem that it can be difficult to explain it in a global context. It was exciting to break it down and come to a mutual understanding.”
Owen earned her bachelor’s in agronomy from Iowa State University. MU offered a soil science program, from a natural resources perspective, which interested her.
“I’ve always worked from the agriculture side,” Owen said. “I’m interested in environmental sustainability, too – especially how agriculture and conservation can work together so that we’re producing affordable food and protecting the environment.”
While the science and research behind Sharp’s NSF grant, studying the physiological genomics of maize nodal root growth under drought, is the main objective, broader impacts are a big focus of the grant. Sharp’s colleague Shaozhong Kang, a professor at China Agricultural University and director of the Center for Agricultural Water Research in China, provided a perfect opportunity to make a broader impact. The group was also able to see Kang’s center, which is on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
Sharp made his first trip to China in 2003. This was his 10th trip – and the first time he has taken a group for this type of endeavor. Christopher Daubert, CAFNR vice chancellor and dean, also made the trip.
“Beyond the science, broader impacts are a big part of what we do,” Sharp said. “Sharing the science with the public, in a way that they can understand how it affects them, is incredibly important. One of the co-investigators on the project is Jon Stemmle, associate professor of journalism at MU, who helped the students prepare for the science communication aspects of the China trip.”
“The idea of a workshop was a natural product of our broader impact mission. I’ve known Professor Kang for some time – and we had previously discussed getting together for a training workshop. This was a way to expand the partnership.”
As the director of the Center for Agricultural Water Research in China, Kang has his own grant focused on water use efficiency.
“Water use efficiency is absolutely critical for sustainable agriculture in northwest China,” Sharp said. “Professor Kang’s research center is located in an area where a large inland lake system is fed from several rivers. Irrigation water from the rivers has been used for hundreds of years to support agriculture. However, in the last 50 years, intensification of agriculture has led to excess use of irrigation water. As a result, the lakes have basically dried up.
“It’s become a major social and ecological problem, as well as a scientific problem. There are small farming communities along these rivers that rely on that water, and they’re having to relocate their farms. It’s also causing major ecological issues associated with desertification.”
While serving as a scientific communication opportunity, the trip also opened the door for future collaboration. The two universities have several similar projects and missions.
“This trip gave us a fantastic opportunity to link with a very strong international agricultural university,” Sharp said. “There are definitely future water-related research projects that could arise between CAFNR and Professor Kang’s Center. This trip helped open up numerous possibilities.”