Sweet Briar’s campus is excellent ecosystem for grant-funded sustainability internships

Posted on June 08, 2017 by Suzanne Ramsey

Students in switchgrass Clemson research technician Jim LeMoine (left) and a campus sustainability intern work in one of Sweet Briar’s switchgrass fields.

This summer, five Sweet Briar students are hard at work as campus sustainability interns.

The internships are funded by a half-million-dollar grant from the Judith Haskell Brewer Fund of The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia, which supports Sweet Briar’s environmental programs, and a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Over the summer, the interns will work on three major projects: growing produce in the community garden; a project focusing on carbon budgets, forests and alternative fuels; and monitoring an invasive water plant.

According to Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink, who is supervising the interns, each intern is focusing on one major project for part of each week and contributes to other projects. The major project is designed to fit each intern’s interests, knowledge and abilities.

The students involved in the program include Shannon Skeffington ’19, a double major in environmental studies and international affairs; environmental studies major Chelsea McKinney ’18; and rising sophomores Valeria Gofigan-Ramirez, Blake Newton and Brianna Garcia — all of whom are leaning toward majoring in biology.

Sustainability - Outdoors Linda Fink and her students gather around LeMoine, examining the phone app used to record data from the field instruments.

In the community garden, the interns will grow produce that will eventually find its way onto plates at Prothro, the College’s dining hall.

“The ultimate goal is learning to produce healthy, local food and market it to our dining services,” Fink said.

“The interns will begin with summer crops that will be sold on campus and [then] get ready for fall plantings to be sold to SBC’s dining services. One of the things we have to work out is our business plan, to see how students will sell stuff back to campus. We are also aiming to install a hoop house to expand our production and extend our growing season.”

Michael Lachance, a retired Virginia Cooperative Extension agent, was hired part time to help supervise work at the community garden. Before anything could be planted, however, there were some details to work out — namely keeping out critters.

“It’s the first week of being in the garden and we’re focusing on deer and groundhogs getting in,” Lachance said in late May. “Before putting anything in the ground, we need to take care of wildlife issues. We used some of the grant money to convert from electric fence to a physical barrier.”

The community garden members, most of whom are Sweet Briar faculty, staff and retirees, tend individual plots and maintain shared plots of flowers and herbs. The students have taken responsibility for a number of plots that were not in current use. All told, they’ll plant about 4,000 square feet — one-tenth of an acre — with bell peppers, tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers and ornamental sunflowers for summer harvest. The fall crops will be selected in collaboration with the sustainability director at Parkhurst Dining, which provides food service at Sweet Briar.

“We will figure out what vegetables to grow that would be the highest yield to sell and produce,” said intern Chelsea McKinney ’18.

McKinney, who lives in Lynchburg, is familiar with farming. Her grandparents raise cattle, corn and grapes in Danville, and she’s cultivated her own garden. Her interest was further piqued by a sustainable agriculture course she took last spring at Sweet Briar.

Sustainability - Classroom The sustainability interns get background information from Clemson investigators LeMoine (speaking) and Tom O’Halloran.

“Having my foot in the door with the sustainable agriculture class, I wanted to see our work in that class come together,” McKinney said of the internship, “selling food to [dining services] and bringing more people to the community garden, because it’s beautiful.”

Brianna Garcia ’20, who “grew up in the ’burbs” of San Antonio and Austin, Texas, is looking forward to her first gardening experience. “To get the community garden up and running and sell some of our produce to the community, that will be great,” she said. “It’s exciting to get to plant your own food.”

The second major project students will be working on actually began last summer, when Katie Ferguson ’17 spent eight weeks studying Hydrilla verticillata, an invasive water plant that inhabits Sweet Briar’s Lower Lake.

Ferguson’s project was part of the 2016 Honors Summer Research Program.

Ferguson, then an instructor with the Sweet Briar Outdoor Program, became interested in studying hydrilla after noticing its impact on recreational activities, such as canoeing. Around the same time, the College was introducing sterile grass carp to the lake, in the hope the fish would help to control the hydrilla.

In an effort to determine whether the carp were doing their job, Ferguson, a biology major and chemistry minor on the pre-vet track, spent the summer developing standard methods to map the distribution and density of the hydrilla. She developed three different methods, including aerial drone photography and a sampler she invented using a five-gallon bucket.

This summer, the sustainability interns will continue Ferguson’s work, using two of her methods to determine what effect the carp are having on the invasive plant.

The third project the interns are working on involves alternative fuel sources, namely loblolly pines and switchgrass, both of which grow on campus.

In 2014, the College converted about 300 acres of its hayfields to switchgrass, which is harvested and sold to a company that converts it into an environmentally friendly heat source.

Sustainability - Forest Valeria Gofigan-Ramirez installs a chamber in which repeated soil respiration rates will be measured with a portable gas analyzer. The interns installed arrays of sampling chambers in the switchgrass field and the loblolly pine stand.

The warm-season grasses take a few years to mature, and last year’s harvest was the first to produce revenue, Fink said.

“It’s looking good now. It’s growing up pretty well,” she said.

Tom O’Halloran, a former Sweet Briar environmental studies professor who now is a research faculty member at Clemson University, is leading the project. Scientists at Virginia Tech also are collaborating with Sweet Briar.

One thing the interns are looking at is the “different services the pine trees and the switchgrass are providing the environment,” O’Halloran said. “Both are potentially biofuel — pine can be ground up into pellets and burned — but holistically, which one is a better biofuel?

“We’re looking at, how do these two things interact with climate, specifically? They’re both supposed to be good for the climate. Which one is the most good?”

There are two land-atmosphere research stations — called LARS for short — on campus. O’Halloran and some of his Sweet Briar students established the first one in 2014 in a pine forest. He collaborated with colleagues at Virginia Tech in 2016 to erect a second smaller research tower in one of the switchgrass fields. An array of equipment affixed to the towers monitor biosphere-atmosphere interaction in the two environments.

O’Halloran defined this as the “cycling of water, carbon and energy between the land — forest versus switchgrass — and the atmosphere,” adding, “This helps understand how weather and climate affect how well these systems grow and function, but also in turn, how the land affects the climate.”

This summer, O’Halloran said the interns will use a soil respiration sensor — “a pretty fancy gadget,” he added — to “measure how much carbon dioxide is coming out of the soil” in both areas.

“We want to understand the total amount of carbon dioxide that each ecosystem takes out of the atmosphere. We’re trying to figure out what the carbon footprint is of each of these ecosystems.”

Skeffington came to Sweet Briar after two years of community college and more than four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a tour in Afghanistan. An interest in sustainability — “actual sustainability, not just the word that’s tossed around” — is what attracted her to the internship.

“I want to know how energy ties into sustainability,” Skeffington said.

O’Halloran says the fact that Sweet Briar students are doing this kind of research, funded by a federal grant, is a “big deal,” but also something that aligns with the College’s commitment to finding educational uses for its 3,250-acre campus.

“The College has always looked for ways to use the land, because that’s one of its unique assets,” he said. “That’s something they’ve always been proud of. They’ve utilized that resource, and now that resource is translating into student learning.

“This is a prime example of students being involved in federally funded research that helps inform questions of environmental sustainability and biofuels research, which is really cutting edge on the national and global scale.”