Poco a poco: The little nopalito in a cornfield

Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) 2018 undergraduate summer researcher, Nicholas Vega Anguiano, is an undergraduate student at Humboldt State University. He wrote about his KBS Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) project working with Kate Glanville in the Robertson Lab.

Nico out in a cornfield doing his research.

Anticipation and nervousness of my impending interview with a W.K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) graduate student, Kate Glanville, sent my body into a state of nerves. Throat tight, palms sweaty, and a million doubts running through my mind. Seven minutes until we were scheduled to meet, via a Google Hangouts conference, I thought about the time and energy I put into preparing for this interview. I took a deep breath, counted to five, and calmed myself. I was ready.

I arrived at KBS, 2000 miles away from anything familiar to me. I wanted to start immediately. I was on edge. I had something to prove. I tried to hide it. The thought of succeeding and getting myself here, was only part of the task. I now had to make good on what I set out to do. I wanted to create, design, and complete a research project that would not only make me a better scientist, but also supplement my mentor’s research. I yearned for my work to pay off in a positive way.

During the first couple of weeks, I started pitching different research project ideas to my mentor. The first iterations had to do with grassland restoration and looking at whether N2O was different in burned sites vs un-burned sites. However, Kate and I agreed that given the time restraints of the REU it was better to use my soil science background on something I was more likely to finish. I started focusing on soil texture. I liked the project idea; because, it utilized my knowledge about soil and its physical properties. Soil texture refers to the proportions of different sized soil particles. Soil constitutes a growing medium for primary producers that support terrestrial life, has contributed to discoveries of antibiotics and serves as Earth’s largest carbon bank, and is home to a majority of nutrient and gas cycling processes.

My mentors work is focused on the Nitrogen cycle, specifically denitrification, which returns nitrate to the microbes that emit N2O, and are active because of low oxygen in a soil profile. The creation of hypoxic conditions depends on landscape position. A higher landscape position holds less water whereas a lower landscape position holds more water and less oxygen to emit more N2O. In agricultural fields, N2O fluxes tend to be consistently higher due to additions of Nitrogen fertilizer. Therefore, landscape position, soil texture and Nitrogen fertilizer are all components that influence N2O emissions into our atmosphere.

My investigation looked at two landscape positions: summits and depressions of a fertilized agricultural field. Taking soil samples from both will determine which soil texture correlates with the most N2O flux. We should be worried about N2O flux because it has almost 300 times the radiating forcing potential than Carbon Dioxide. Therefore, it’s a dangerous greenhouse gas that is partially responsible for climate change. Thus, the question I asked is if soil texture plays a significant role in the emissions of N2O given different landscape positions.

My research at KBS has not been perfect, and I did not expect it to be. It’s strange really. I thought about research as a competition, where if one works hard enough they will receive the result they were expecting. I failed to consider the alternative. The abstractness of researcher’s uncertainty. The thought that one’s predictions could possibly turn out to be the opposite of what one predicted. I had a case of researcher’s uncertainty. Really, it’s because I refused to accept failure as an answer to a question (failure being that your predictions were not completely correct.) Which caused me to constantly wonder if my research was a going to turn out the way I wanted or result in failure. It’s kinda like being in limbo specifically designed for scientists. I’ve figured out through trial and error that I will not stop investigating a question because an answer we received was unexpected. All that will matter is that we received an answer -however convoluted- is still an answer to our question. Research will never be perfect and, in a way, will never be finished. We could always find a question to ask and a way to test that question. It’s a matter of finding a comfortable place to stop asking questions and accept the answers that we’ve found.

Excited, I took a deep breath. Counted to five and pondered. What should I ask next?