Posted: May 6, 2016

Interdisciplinary research helps faculty members in the college tackle big questions.

Siela Maximova
Siela Maximova was brought on as a faculty fellow in the Office for Research and Graduate Education to help build and maintain effective interdisciplinary teams around the college's crosscutting research themes.

Scientists, policymakers, and the public now realize that we are facing major issues that will need to be solved by big, interdisciplinary teams.

About 10 miles southwest of main campus, there's a farm that grows its own fuel. Among other crops, this 16-acre dairy farm grows canola, which is converted into an oil that powers a special tractor. The farm grows almost everything it needs, including feed and forage for the dairy cows and cover crops that reduce soil erosion and provide green manure. It's a model that not only allows the farm to be self-sufficient, but also helps protect it from fluctuations in both the price of milk and the price of feed.

"The overall goal is to design a more self-sufficient dairy cropping system," says Heather Karsten, associate professor of crop production and ecology. Running a project like this requires a group effort. Nearly a dozen faculty and research staff members, several graduate students, and nine farmers and researchers (who serve on an advisory board) comprise the team. The core group meets monthly, says Karsten, getting together to plan activities, present results, and align research schedules.

But the monthly meeting isn't just some administrative chore, says Karsten. The varied fields represented in the room offer a unique team dynamic. "The soil scientist, the entomologist, the dairy scientist, and the weed scientist--we're all sitting together figuring out how all of our various expertise and research factor into improving the overall performance of the cropping system and the dairy herd production," says Karsten. "So we're learning from each other about how the whole dairy farm performs--and what's needed to optimize its performance."

In total, 17 scientists collaborate on the project. Typically, they would be working on separate projects, publishing in specialized journals, and going to conferences with field-specific peers. It's a structure that helps academic colleagues build on each other's research, but it doesn't provide for much exposure to other disciplines.

But varied perspectives are the only way something this size could work, says John Tooker, associate professor of entomology and extension specialist. "Each of us has learned so much from each other, and we see better how the pieces fit together," he says. "But none of us could pull the project off on our own." It only makes sense. Doug Beegle, Distinguished Professor of Agronomy, has been working in manure and nutrient management for 30 years. Bill Curran, professor of weed science, has been studying weeds for just as long. "It's a perfect example of how interdisciplinary work can be beneficial." And really, he says, "in this day and age, it's almost necessary."

Joining Forces

This realization that big questions are best addressed by teams of specialists working together is not unique to Penn State, says Siela Maximova, a senior scientist and professor of horticulture. "It's not just scientists but the majority of the public and policymakers who now realize that we are facing major issues that are going to be solved by big, interdisciplinary teams that bring different expertise and perspectives," she says. "How the world will feed itself when--as predicted--the global population hits 9 billion in 2050 is a perfect example. And understanding climate change requires studying and integrating the knowledge of Earth's biomass, oceans, rivers, ice shelves, atmosphere, solar radiation, plants, animals, and others," says Maximova. "No single person can do that."

Penn State has a long history of promoting interdisciplinary research; a number of institutes and centers across the University foster that work, which involves many faculty members from the College of Agricultural Sciences. In addition, the college is exploring new ways to create strong interdisciplinary research projects and build interdisciplinary teams through its Strategic Initiatives and Networks Program. For example, Maximova was brought on as a faculty fellow in the Office of Research and Graduate Education to help build and maintain effective interdisciplinary teams around the college's crosscutting research themes: advanced agricultural and food systems; biologically based materials and products; environmental resilience; global engagement; and integrated health solutions.

Last August, the college's Office for Research and Graduate Education put out a request to its faculty to propose ideas for innovative research initiatives and interdisciplinary research programs. Each proposal had to include a plan for new ways to promote collaboration--conferences, social media tools, research networks--in one of the five crosscutting research areas. With grant awards ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, Maximova says, "the idea was to give faculty members the opportunity to come together and drive their own initiatives."

But while the different project leaders Maximova spoke to were all very excited about the idea, execution has its hurdles. "Everyone has a different outlook on the research," she notes. Plus, the academic culture usually awards individually--think of the weight of "lead author" status on a research paper--and those awards are what professors rely on for professional advancement. "Someone who is very early in his or her career development needs the primary investigator recognition more than being a member of a big team," she says. "So, from that perspective, it is challenging." Another hurdle: communication. Disparate fields mean disparate academic languages. It's a human-resources challenge with real scientific, global outcomes hanging in the balance.

Thinking smaller and more near-term, Maximova hopes that the activities funded by the grant program will further underpin collaborative spirit in the college. She offers an anecdote: Last year, she took the opportunity to participate in a leadership training offered to faculty and staff members by the college's administration. "I go in, and there are 30 people in a room, all from different departments," she says. "We look at each other, and there were only a few of us who knew each other." Which also meant that there was no way that they could know the goals and ambitions of their colleagues. By the end of the training, all 30 were in agreement: They needed to be more active networkers. They needed to make more connections--not just socially, but actually come together and do some real work. It would be a serious cultural shift. "And this," says Maximova, referring to the grant program, "is an attempt to move toward that."

Solving Big Problems

Eventually, the benefits of this new, collaborative atmosphere will make their way out into the field. "Farmers are the integrators of this knowledge," says Karsten. "And this helps students and faculty members to be more prepared for what farmers are dealing with."

After six years, the researchers' test site has armed them with some valuable, actionable insights to pass on. Their use of manure injection--rather than the typical surface application--reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizers by 33 percent and mitigated manure nutrient loss, protecting water quality. Using green legumes and green manure crops before corn even allowed them to forego purchasing nitrogen fertilizer entirely most years. They reduced pesticide use and still maintained yields in their corn crop five out six years and in their soybeans all six years. The economics test out, too: Using a dairy scientist's simulations, Karsten notes that the team found the sustainable system was profitable over its first four years of production.

Much of that profit can be tied to those reduced input costs. Lucas Criswell, who owns an 1,800-acre farm near Lewisburg, Pa., says he saves about $9,000 annually in reduced pesticide costs thanks in part to some of John Tooker's research findings stemming from work at the dairy cropping test site.

Criswell started working with Tooker six years ago, when he and a neighboring farmer began to see a sharp increase in slug populations in their crops. Tooker demurred at first. "I'm an entomologist," he told Criswell. "Slugs are mollusks." He eventually came around after field experiments at the test site found that the slug growth appeared to be directly related to the decline in the population of their predators, ground beetles. Using two quarter-acre plots at the test site, Tooker and his team planted two different fields of soybean seeds: one treated with neonicotinoid insecticides--one of the country's most widely used class of pesticides--and another with untreated seeds. In the areas with the insecticide-treated seeds, slug populations rose, decreasing soybean density by almost 20 percent and crop yield by 5 percent.

"That was a big eye opener for me," says Criswell. "We stopped using 'neonics' cold turkey." Along with the financial savings, he credits Tooker's work with changing his view of pesticide use in general. "We don't use it as insurance like we used to," Criswell says. "It's something we only use if we really have to."

Criswell did come up with another way to fight the slugs: a new take on "planting green. " "It's establishing your cash crop into a green cover crop," says Tooker. Cover crops are usually planted in the fall and killed in the spring; there's about a two-week window after the cover crop dies to plant the cash crop, says Tooker. It's a method for soil improvement and slug reduction that Tooker had already employed at the test site and Criswell had used at his farm. But after some discussion, Criswell says, "a light bulb went on." "I knew the slugs were always after something green," he says. So rather than kill the cover crop, he just started planting the cash crop into it while it was still green, killing it a week or so later, and letting it die slowly over time. "Now the slugs have something huge and green until it dies, and by that time, the other plant is already up."

Criswell's work and the work of other collaborating farmers have spawned a new interdisciplinary research project on planting green for Tooker, Karsten, Curran, and on-farm research coordinator Ron Hoover, senior project associate. The relationship with practitioners is symbiotic, says Tooker. "There've been instances where we've provided guidance and the lead, and there are some instances where the growers provide the guidance and the lead." Karsten notes that practicing farmers on the college's advisory board offered valuable advice during the project design process, and they remain a trusted resource. "We've learned a lot from them," she says.

The connection to growers also reinforces one of the project's biggest lessons, says Tooker. "I've been made aware that insect and slug management is just a minor part of what any particular farmer has to deal with. And that's probably something that I should have realized long ago. But this project has really emphasized that there are so many moving pieces, and if they don't fit together well, then it is hard to believe that any farmer is going to adopt them."

In other words, it's one of those big problems that multidisciplinary teams are best suited to tackle. "Managing farms is complex," says Tooker, "and getting us together is vital to make sure things are profitable."

--Dan Morrell