Undergraduates conduct biofuel sustainability research at KBS

REU 2012 photo

REUs Tamira Vojnar (left) and Cait Gallagher (right) sampling in the biofuels experiment; photo credit Liz VandenHeede

Cait Gallagher and Tamira Vojnar had the unique experience of gaining hands-on research experience as undergraduates at the KBS LTER this summer. Gallagher and Vojnar were part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program that brings undergraduate students from across the country to KBS every summer. The ten-week REU program was funded by the Department of Energy through the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC).

Gallagher, a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Vojnar, a junior at Bowdoin College in Maine, were at KBS from May through early August conducting research with the GLBRC.

The GLBRC sustainability research program at KBS investigates the economic viability and environmental sustainability of crops that have the potential to be grown for cellulosic biofuels, such as ethanol.

Working with her mentor Dr. Ilya Gelfand, a KBS research associate, Gallagher measured emissions of gases known as nitrogen oxides from the soil. Nitrogen oxide emissions from soils have rarely been measured, yet these gases play important roles in air quality and can affect crop health. Agricultural soils are suspected to be an important source of these gases.

“My research showed that moisture added to soils after prolonged drought-like conditions caused a spike in nitrogen oxide emissions. This spike was associated with a decrease in photosynthetic activity,” said Gallagher. While the reason for the negative effect on crop growth remains unclear, it could have important implications for biofuel and food crops.

“The most exciting part of this research was actually seeing all the hard work that I put in this summer come together nicely,” Gallagher said. She said her summer at KBS really helped her develop an interest in research, as well as learn a lot about graduate programs in the sciences. In the fall, Gallagher will begin her senior year and is still considering her options for after graduation.

“I truly believe that my experience at KBS has opened up doors that I didn’t even know existed,” she said. “This summer at KBS has been one of the most influential and extraordinary experiences of my life.”

Vojnar spent the summer investigating switchgrass, a grass native to the United States that is being considered as a cellulosic biofuel crop. She worked with her mentor, KBS LTER Science Coordinator Dr. Justin Kunkle, to determine which of 12 varieties of switchgrass planted at KBS have the highest drought tolerance.

She did this using an instrument that tracked how switchgrass leaves were releasing or conserving water throughout this past summer’s prolonged drought. Vojnar said, “This type of research is valuable because climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of droughts in the future. So it is important that we learn about the relative drought tolerance of each of the crops being considered for use in the production of cellulosic biofuel.”

Vojnar said the first-hand experience she has gained at KBS has both helped shape her future plans and better prepare her for them. She will continue at Bowdoin College in the fall and study abroad in New Zealand in the spring. After her completing her undergraduate education, Vojnar wants to take a year off and travel before going on to graduate school.

“My experience at KBS this summer has clarified that I definitely want to get my Ph.D., which I was not completely sure of before this summer,” she said.