Student Research

Sustainability-related Student Research Projects

Sweet Briar provides many pathways for students to engage in research projects with faculty mentors, inducing the Honors Summer Research Program (HSRP), the senior honors thesis course series, and independent and group research-based courses and semester projects. While students and faculty have long used Sweet Briar’s campus for field research, as we work to increase the sustainability of our campus operations, there are ever-increasing opportunities for student research projects.


Examples of ongoing and past sustainability-related research projects, as described by the student researchers.

Bijou Barry ’23

Diversity in the Wine World

Faculty mentor: August Hardy
Summer 2020

Bijou Barry '23 Diversity in the Wine World Bijou Barry '23 Diversity in the Wine World

From 8000 B.C. wine has infiltrated all aspects of society. It has existed as an aromatic reminder of the influences, culture, and behavior of civilizations. My ongoing research project, which I started during the Honors Summer Research Program, employs a systems approach to analyze solutions to diversify the wine industry. We interrogate the role of government control, frameworks, and ideologies utilized to shape consumer tenets and preferences with regards to the wine industry. We analyze how hierarchical and patriarchal systems influence market opportunities and trends that negatively affect diversity in race, class, gender, and age in winemaking. We analyze the impact of a free-market economic approach relative to a robust regulatory framework on the sectors of agriculture, manufacturing, and trade in the wine industry. Finally, we apply philosophical theories to examine the dichotomies that exist between the identities of a consumer and a citizen and their implications on wine consumption and regulation. We argue that diversification of the wine industry begins with the assessment of our relationship to power, our preferences and behaviors as consumers, and our relationship to the natural world and requires the intentional amalgamation of ethical thinking and application with regards to economic endeavors and political governance.

Abby Cahill ’21

Groundwork: Forest Farming and Mushroom Intercropping

Faculty mentor: Lisa Powell
Summer-Fall 2020

Abby Cahill '21 Groundwork: Forest Farming and Mushroom Intercropping Abby Cahill '21 Groundwork: Forest Farming and Mushroom Intercropping

The summer of 2020 was a challenging one, to say the least. The spring semester was cut short, with COVID-19 forcing classes and campus life to move online, and honors summer research to be done remotely. I was able to convert the honors summer research proposal I had been planning into something feasible during COVID. My summer research was an investigation of potential symbiotic relationships between interplanted mushrooms and vegetable crops. I explored the roles of mushrooms in soil health, and conducted scoping work on the potential for mushroom cultivation and other types of forest farming on the Sweet Briar Campus. Alternative agriculture is a rapidly expanding field, as climate and environmental issues juxtapose an ever-increasing world population teetering atop an industrialized agricultural system. Holistic, creative solutions, such as the ones investigated in this research, have the potential to help alleviate tensions between environment and society and contribute to efforts to achieve food systems sustainability.

I worked with Dr. Powell to run field experiments exploring the potential of intercropping mushrooms with various types of plants in order to improve soil health, plant health, and yield. She was my “field assistant” for work based in the community garden on the Sweet Briar Campus and I was able to conduct research remotely, from my home-garden in Powhatan, Virginia, about an hour and half east of Sweet Briar. At Sweet Briar, we put into place a divided plot of tomatoes, with mycelium, the biotic filament associated with mushroom growth, on one side of the barrier, and the control on the other. In Powhatan county, I had a similar tomato plot, as well as a corn plot and strawberry plot. We took baseline soil samples at the beginning of the summer, then monitored the plant growth and yield throughout the research period. The yield results for tomatoes were contradictory across locations, with mycelium-treated plots in Powhatan averaging just over half a kilo more per plant, and those at Sweet Briar averaging nearly three quarters of a kilo less per healthy plant. The soil results were a bit more consistent, with a slight decrease in pH and organic matter in both treated plots. This actually contradicted our hypothesis, but there are several possible explanations wny this could have happened over the time period of the initial research. It can take months or years to see significant developments in soil health in the field. In order to continue monitoring soil developments, we’ve removed the old tomato plants and planted kale in with the mushrooms; as of October 2020, we are harvesting kale and have seen our first mushroom!

Emma Leaseburg ’22

Environmental and Agronomic Effects of Manure and Plant Waste Based Composts

Faculty mentor: Lili Lei
Summer 2021-Spring 2022

Emma Leaseburg '22 Environmental and Agronomic Effects of Manure and Plant Waste Based Composts Emma Leaseburg '22 Environmental and Agronomic Effects of Manure and Plant Waste Based Composts

The soil ecosystem is essential to provide nutrients for plant growth and dynamic in biogeochemical nutrient cycling, which is influenced by management practices.

The most common alteration of soils is through the application of soil amendments such as organic composts or inorganic fertilizers in agricultural operations. Differences in soil amendments vary in affecting soil and plant productivity as well as carbon and nitrogen (N) biogeochemical cycles. It’s important to understand the efficiency of various amendments in providing short-term available nutrients for in-season plant needs as well as long-term soil productivity. I am interested in the agronomic, nutrient, and environmental efficiency of green manure, made from food and yard waste, compared to traditional animal manure and inorganic fertilizers. The goal of my research is to understand how the application of cow manure, green manure, and inorganic fertilizers affect the degraded agricultural soil ecosystem and which amendment is more efficient in improving soil physical, chemical, and biological properties as well as crop quality. I studied how these amendments influenced plant nutrient composition, soil inorganic N, and soil leachate N concentration in the community garden at SBC during the summer of 2021. Interesting results were found, and I opted to continue researching this topic for my Senior Honors Thesis for a deeper understanding. From the biogeochemical perspective, I am interested in how these soil amendments influence soil organic matter decomposition and thus N and C nutrient cycling. I am currently studying soil enzyme activity of phenoloxidase and peroxidase which are responsible for the decomposition and transformation of organic matter into plant-available N nutrients. This will enable a better understanding of nutrient cycling in soil amended with food and yard waste and thus may be helpful to make appropriate N recommendations of these organic fertilizers for agricultural operations.

Jackie Vari ’22

Do pollinator visitation rates differ between native plant species and their nativars?

Faculty mentor: Linda Fink
Winter 2020-Fall 2021

As the plant world winds down for the winter, gearing up for the growing season ahead, I am also preparing. During the growing season of 2021, I will be investigating some intriguing questions regarding the native plant life of the Sweet Briar campus. One question in particular asks: do pollinator visitation rates differ between native plants and their nativars (cultivated natives)? In gardening communities and nurseries, there is a lot of buzz around this question. Therefore, a large part of my interest in this research is to be able to pass on the information I acquire to these groups. I will also be taking a look at pollinator visitation rate comparisons between an area of established pollinator habitat, the Community Garden, and a recently cleared grassy area, near the new Greenhouse. To explore both of these ideas, I will be arranging and establishing plots in both locations.

I have chosen three species to study: Coreopsis verticillata, Echinacea purpurea, and Monarda fistulosa. Once the plots are established and the plants are transplanted, I will then move on to making observations about the types and amount of pollinators I see visiting each type of plant in its plot. Of the minute amount of research that has been conducted on the topic thus far, the results have mostly been species-dependent. This means that maybe for one of the species, the native attracts more pollinators than the nativar, but simultaneously, another species might have a more attractive nativar compared to the native. I hypothesize that results for my study will be similar. Variation like this in the natural world is to be expected, and sometimes it can be challenging to measure. Nevertheless, I am eager to get into the field to learn more about the intricacies of the plant world.