Close to nature at KBS: reflections from a summer intern

By Alex Whitlow, a 2014 summer intern at the Kellogg Biological Station working with the KBS LTER, MSU Extension, and KBS scientists. Alex’s internship was funded by MSU Extension.

Until this summer, the vast majority of my life was spent within the deep suburban sprawl of metro Detroit, where shopping malls and large almost-mansion took up most of the landscape. The most I saw of the human and natural ecosystem overlap came from the random, sparsely placed metro parks that served to feed suburbanites their daily dose of nature. Even when I started school at the farm-surrounded Michigan State University (MSU), I thought very little of the absence of the fields and trees within my college life bubble. The Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) was the perfect place to change my perspective. Located on a lake and surround by farmland and forests in southwest Michigan, KBS is a haven for fieldwork in the natural sciences. From where I stand now and the experiences I have had this past summer, I regret the little attention I gave to the underlying natural infrastructure that is critical to life as we know it. The opportunity to intern for MSU Extension at KBS provided me the insight that I now have, and I would like to share some experiences I’ve had there and the work that provided me my insights.

KBS intern Alex Whitlow taking plant height samples in a sorghum and soy field at the KBS pasture dairy farm. Photo courtesy of Santiago Utsumi.

KBS intern Alex Whitlow taking plant height samples in a sorghum and soy field at the KBS pasture dairy farm. Photo courtesy of Santiago Utsumi.

When I started at KBS, my internship duties were not clearly defined so I really didn’t know what to expect. Together, with my four internship coordinators, we put together a list of what I wanted to achieve by the end of the summer. By name, the job was given the title bioenergy educator, something that excited me greatly as I study biosystems engineering at MSU and focus primarily on biofuel production. We devised a plan where I was to designate one day a week for each of my four mentors. Doing this, I could focus on the skills each coordinator had to offer.

With one of my internship coordinators, Dennis Pennington, I was involved with a variety of tasks focused on widening my scope of bioenergy education. Farmers, government agency employees, and youth groups alike were involved in our weekly excursions across the state. In East Lansing, I witnessed MSU Extension and Department of Agriculture employees discuss a broad variety of community outreach projects involving agriculture. I contributed to educating the youth group 4H on a variety of topics. One topic was how to take stand counts of the fast and tall growing field crop miscanthus. On another occasion, I taught a group of around 15 high school students how to titrate vegetable oil so that it could be later turned into biodiesel. Helping these kids understand that renewable fuel could be made from plants grown in a field and showing them that the process isn’t actually complicated was the most rewarding experience I had there. It’s one thing to understand that there are methods to reduce human impact on the environment as an individual; the real contribution comes from spreading this knowledge to new generations.

With Dr. Dean Baas, another internship coordinator, I was sent into bioenergy crop fields to conduct the much needed manual maintenance. Frequently painstaking, I maintained my composure by remembering that farmers do the same time consuming labor. In order to understand and teach to a group of workers, one must experience the work first hand. I learned that hours of work can be lost by a small number of gophers when I had to replant corn fields by hand. I also learned that much depends on the weather. A lot of rain can interfere with equipment use, and a small amount of rain can hurt your crop growth.

Dr. Santiago Utsumi offered an experience quite different from the other internship coordinators. With him, I spent time working at the KBS pasture dairy farm. My main focus with Santiago was to contribute to on-going research he’s been conducting on complimentary forage systems for cows. In these systems, bioenergy crops are grazed by cows in order to better understand the effect these plants will have on the milk production of cows. In the end, I helped put together a research poster where we presented our findings on a study done of strip-intercropping sorghum and soybeans. While on the job, I jumped over electric fences, learned the complex feeding behavior of cows, saw the effect weeds have on crops, and rode an ATV to collect biomass data so that the fields could be managed properly.

My fourth internship coordinator, Dr. Julie Doll, works with the KBS Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) program, an experiment on the ecology of field crops that has been going on continuously for the last 25 years. It was designed to study exactly what kind of impacts we are having on the environment when growing crops for food/fuel/fiber. I walked the LTER Ag & Ecology Walking Tour, a way to educate the public about the research, located on the field every week, as one of my duties was to maintain the integrity of the tour. Every week I would observe the growth of plants. Corn, to pre-KBS me, was the boring poster-child of farm life, but as I watched it grow taller week by week I grew a real appreciation for the plant. Its upkeep and existence gives the world food and fuel, yet most people never give it any thought. I gained respect for those who were studying how to grow it and other crops to yield more and hurt the environment less, for they are creating changes in the very substances that keep us alive.

When I am taking classes at MSU, I spend eight hours a day, five days a week on a computer. I spent one, eight-hour day a week on a computer at KBS. The insight I feel that I’ve gained from this extends to more than just what I’ve learned about education, research, and field research maintenance. It’s that the overlap between people and nature is one that is critical to our existence, but often hidden behind shopping malls and gas stations.

Alex Whitlow presenting his internship project at the KBS undergraduate research poster session in August. Photo courtesy of Julie Doll.

KBS intern Alex Whitlow presenting his internship project at the KBS undergraduate research poster session in August. Photo courtesy of Julie Doll.