KBS summer researcher Andrew Konieczny is majoring in Biology at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He wrote about his Research Experience for Undergraduates project working with KBS LTER post doctoral researcher Adam Reimer in Phil Robertson‘s lab. Andrew was funded by an NSF REU site award to the Kellogg Biological Station.
The summer of 2016 will forever hold a spot in my heart and will not be long forgotten in my mind. The plan was simple enough: go to Michigan, do some social science research, maybe meet some people, and return to life as normal. However, one of the many things I’ve learned this summer is that plans are rarely set in stone. I should preface this with a simple fact, I am a biology major with absolutely no training or understanding of social science methods. Honestly, prior to this summer, I had always addressed social science as a “soft science” as many other biological science majors do. What I learned on the contrary, was that social science is many things but soft isn’t one of them.
My mentor for the summer was Dr. Adam Reimer, who works in Dr. Phil Roberton’s lab, and my Research Experience for Undergraduates project would be trying to better understand who agricultural consultants are and how they influence farmer nitrogen decisions. This is important because row crops such as corn require large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer to fuel growth and production. Increased use of nitrogen fertilizers nationally has contributed to a number of environmental problems, including hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and ground water contamination due to nitrate leaching, as well as contributing to climate change through production of N2O gas. Throughout this 10-week journey, as it turned out to be, I needed to not only accomplish this research project, but I also had to learn everything about this research I was going to do from square one. While I had obviously not fully understood this when I took the job, I was delighted at the opportunity to try my hand at something new.
As with any learning experience there were growing pains. I had to first become certified to do research on humans: so there goes a 28 module training certification and countless hours looking at a computer screen. However, this extra protection is extremely necessary given the complexities that is working with humans. It isn’t like working with a plant or a model organism, these are living, breathing people like you and me. Next, was learning the methods behind how to do social science, and this was achieved by reading, reading, and more reading. Then was learning the delicate “art” that is interviewing someone; if you think this is a joke give it a try and let me know how it goes. Finally, there was learning how to analyze data in which there were no numbers, not one, none, zero, zilch and the complexities that are thematic analysis. There is no way I would have made it through without a lot of help from some amazing people I met along the way.
This summer I found that farmers are faced with many logistic factors when making decisions on nitrogen management, including fertilizer formulation, timing, and placement. Previous research on farmer nutrient decision making has documented the importance of recommendations from advisors, including private sector consultants (Osmond et al. 2015; Stuart et al. 2014 ). I performed key informant interviews with six consultants of different backgrounds over the span of two months, and generated 67 pages of verbatim transcriptions. Thematic analysis was then used to code out central themes from the key informant interviews. Central themes seen in all of the interviews were: trust is a key factor for farmers; there is a constant balancing act between economical, logistical, agronomical, and environmental factors; and farmers consult multiple recommendations, and ultimately do what they think is best or the best they can do. We need to try and better understand any motives or barriers if we are to ever increase communication between research/extension and private sector consultants. This communication could be key in the future for more effective policy adoption
The people here at KBS are awesome. I will never be able to thank everyone enough. My mentor Adam took me on this summer to be his REU while expecting his second child, and I am forever grateful. Three other mentors allowed me to work on their projects this summer so that I could receive some experience working in the field. I met a whole community of people here that were super nerds like myself, and that were always ready and willing to help. Perhaps, one of my most profound memories of this place will be playing Ultimate Frisbee on Tuesdays and Fridays with a group of people that ranged from faculty, to lab techs, to REUs, and even visiting scientists. We were a cohort, we all knew each other’s names, and we talked about the day’s activities. I was genuinely excited to play, and would look forward to those warm summer days running barefoot after a disk.
I came into this summer before my senior year with no idea what I was going to do once I graduated. I’m not saying I have all the answers yet, but this summer has taught me a lot about myself, and I hate to say that at the risk it sounds cliché. I reassured myself that I really do enjoy research. I learned that I enjoy field work. I learned that this delicate balance between agriculture and ecology has a place in my heart. Finally, I learned that social science is useful when doing biological science. I don’t see myself as a social scientist by any stretch of the imagination, but going forward I hope to be a more well-rounded scientist. I hope to become more integrated, and with that more useful. Ultimately, this summer I learned to be: flexible, well rounded, okay with the unknown. I learned how to do: social science, soil coring, gas sampling, and water testing. And while I may not be a master at any one of these things I’m happy and proud to call myself a “jack of all trades”.
Osmond, D.L., D.L.K. Hoag, A.E. Luloff, D.W. Meals, and K. Neas. 2015. Farmers’ use of nutrient management: lessons from watershed case studies. Journal of Environmental Quality 44: 382-390.
Stuart, D., R.L. Schewe, and M. McDermott. 2014. Reducing nitrogen fertilizer application as a climate change mitigation strategy: understanding farmer decision-making and potential barriers to change in the US. Land Use Policy 36: 210-218.