Diving deep into soil: Reflections from an undergrad researcher

Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) LTER 2019 undergraduate summer researcher, Aista Sall, from University of South Florida. She wrote about her KBS LTER Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) project working in Dr. Steve Culman’s lab at the Wooster Campus of The Ohio State University.

Aista Sall
KBS LTER REU Aista Sall (left) Hiking at Mohican State park located in Ashland, OH county.

The midwest has always been a place I wanted to visit, due to its natural beauty and wide range of activities that it offers. So when the opportunity presented itself for me to do a dual Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) for the Kellogg Biological Station Long Term Ecological Research (KBS LTER) site, while living in Wooster, Ohio for 10 weeks I could not let it pass me by. Coming from sunny Florida, Ohio was a whole different world for me. 

Unlike my counterparts, I was the only KBS REU student located in Wooster working with Dr. Steve Culman’s SENR lab at the Ohio State University. My project focused on comparatively analyzing Ohio long term no-tillage data with KBS. We evaluated active organic matter in our sampled soils using infra-red spectroscopy, permanganate oxidable carbon (POXC), soil protein and soil respiration. Our results showed that three factors explained the high levels of organic matter in no-till systems – (1) retention of quality crop residues, (2) enhanced activity of soil micro-organisms, and (3) minimal soil disturbance. Also, increasing the diversity of the types of carbon entering the soil could enhance microbial diversity and likely contributed to higher levels of active organic matter with greater crop diversity. For my future research, infra-red spectroscopy is a method that could be used on KBS soil samples to determine stratification trends in soil depth compared to Ohio long-term no till systems.

Aista Sall
Filling anodized aluminum plates that fit 24 polystyrene sample cups each loaded with a soil subsample.

Reflecting back on this summer, I have come to truly appreciate how much I have learned and the different ways in which I have grown. Primarily, I was able to widen the scope of my scientific knowledge. I have familiarized myself with a variety of new laboratory techniques, such as infrared spectroscopy, chemical agent preparation, and soil health testing methods. I was also able to sharpen skills found outside a laboratory environment, including doing some field work, connecting with members of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) community, and most importantly stepping outside of my comfort zone. This whole experience has pushed me to become more confident in myself, both as a student and as a friend. I made really strong connections with my fellow researchers and mentors, and was able to understand the qualities that I look for in others. Furthermore, I was able to explore things that make me content, such as travelling to new places, hiking, and being with people who share similar passions to me. I experienced different schools of thought from people from all walks of life and made some excellent friendships. 

Researching critical scientific problems that have a significant effect on agricultural sciences has opened up a new world, and has given me an in-depth understanding of different techniques used in soil health testing. Even though this was a new experience for me, it helped me solidify my interest in pursuing scientific research as a career, and I am now more confident about going to graduate school. Overall, I had a fantastic summer and I am thrilled that I was chosen for this experience!