The Idaho-Costa Rica Connection
By Donna Emert
In the humid jungles of Talamanca, Costa Rica, UI CALS graduate student Leigh Winowiecki digs soil pits under a lush canopy of exotic flora, seeking insights that might help native banana growers prevent their most productive soils from eroding.
Nearby, teammate Beth Polidoro wades into tropical waters to gather samples and ventures into the deeper pools of local custom and thought, examining the scientific, cultural, and economic impacts of current pesticide use on forest streams. She seeks clues to a more environmentally friendly, cheaper pesticide practice.
A third teammate, Jan Schipper, slapping mosquitoes as he breaks path up the Talamanca Mountains, gathers data with infrared cameras and remote sensing tools, mapping what he finds with a geographic information system (GIS). He uses his maps, plus interviews with locals, to draft a wildlife conservation plan to save habitat for endangered margays and tigrillos, jungle cats on Costa Rica's endangered list.
These three UI doctoral students are members of the Talamanca research team that also includes CALS entomology student Ruth Dahlquist and College of Natural Resources student Chris Lorion, a wildlife resources student. They are among 19 UI doctoral "fellows" funded by the Integrative Graduate Research and Education Traineeship (IGERT) program. Their cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research seeks sustainable solutions to some of our planet's most pressing environmental, economic, and social challenges.
$3 million to cross-train scientists
While the scientific community increasingly values an interdisciplinary approach to research, few graduate programs teach it. To meet the growing need for cross-trained scientists, the National Science Foundation funds 20 to 30 IGERT projects annually. In 2001, the University of Idaho was chosen from a pool of 300 applicants to receive a $3 million grant to cross-train doctoral students. The significance of the proposed research and its strong Costa Rica ties helped UI earn the grant.
"We want our students to experience working in interdisciplinary teams early in their professional careers," says Nilsa Bosque-Pérez, UI project director and CALS associate professor of entomology. She is Dahlquist's major professor. "In the modern era, that's how most scientists work, whether they work for universities, governments, or private industry."
Jointly issuing the Ph.D. to UI students is Costa Rica's Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE-say it cat-ee-yea), which for 30 years has sought creative answers to environmental and community issues in more than a dozen Latin American countries. The UI is one of only two universities with a joint CATIE doctoral program.
The grant helps fund costs of five teams made up of students from the Colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences and of Natural Resources. Each student works both in Idaho and in Costa Rica.
Research challenges in Costa Rica
"In Talamanca, there is a specific challenge in trying to conduct quality academic research in the absence of any previous baseline data," said Polidoro, who works with CALS soil scientist Matt Morra. The Talamanca team is doing its best to fill that information hole.
Data collection efforts so far include farmer interviews on pesticide applications conducted by Polidoro and Dahlquist; complimentary information on established local banana weevil control methods gathered by Dahlquist; Chris Lorion's water quality data, which also measures aquatic community biodiversity; Winowiecki's regional soil data; Polidoro's spatially mapped pesticide hotspots, and Schipper's medium and large mammal habitat map. The data can be studied in overlay, to find where these issues connect.
Value of team research
"As a conservation scientist I have continually run across the problem of how to actually get something done on the ground, once we know what we need to do to conserve the species or habitat in question," says Schipper, a CNR graduate student who also has conducted research for the World Wildlife Fund and Caribbean Conservation Corporation.
"This involves dealing with people, politics, economics, and other fields that are well outside of my expertise. Working on a team allows you to bind your expertise with your teammates' to begin to tackle the true complexities of conservation. We need a remediation approach, which provides alternatives to agricultural practices, so that people can make a living, but not at the expense of the environment." "There is definitely a level of insight that was missed in single discipline approaches," notes Paul McDaniel, professor of soil sciences and major professor to Winowiecki. "The key is a better understanding of how the issues interconnect. We can find many examples in forestry and agriculture where problems or issues were not addressed in an interdisciplinary manner, and the results have been environmentally, socially, and economically devastating. The Dust Bowl is only one example."
Lessons from a hole in the ground
"When I dig a soil pit, it is common for several neighbors and children to gather round and ask questions," says Winowiecki, who has been digging holes in Talamanca since January 2004. She looks at how soil properties affect nutrient balances for growing cacao, a valuable cash crop in the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve.
The UI's McDaniel and CATIE agroecologist Eduardo Somar-riba are her advisors. Her interdisciplinary focus is on local perceptions of soil types and how that influences land use. Her work offers both learning and teaching opportunities.
"I try to engage them.looking for rocks, roots, and identifying soil color and texture. By the end of the day, the children are running around their farm trying to find soil of different colors to show me. It is definitely a wonderful experience."
Meanwhile, back on the Palouse
Another CALS IGERT fellow, Yaniria Sánchez de León, also pursuing a Ph.D. in soil science, is one of five members of the Palouse prairie interdisciplinary research team, which includes students in soil science, entomology, botany, and social science. The prairie team has among its goals to advance scientific and community understanding of the endangered Palouse prairie ecosystem and neighboring agricultural landscapes.
Sánchez de León works with assistant professor of soil science Jodi Johnson-Maynard, studying carbon sequestration and earthworms in Palouse prairie remnants and also assessing earthworm populations in Costa Rica's coffee agroecosystems.
"Having different perspectives on a scientific problem makes possible a more holistic approach," said Sánchez de León. "I've had to learn different research methodologies from each of the locations in our project, and how to combine them in a coherent and meaningful way."
Why an interdisciplinary approach is important
"The reason why an interdisciplinary approach should work is that real world problems are interdisciplinary," notes Jan Boll, associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering and major professor to Ryan Toohey. "For instance, in my field, I can design all the controls to eliminate erosion, but my design may not be economically viable or socially acceptable. We need to listen to other disciplines and learn from them, and then we can start integrating what we learn."
All IGERT fellows must document their original research and also write about what they learned while working with students from other disciplines. Toohey's interdisciplinary chapter-to be produced with fellow CALS students Mariangie Ramos and Edgar Varón-will look at the links among soil nutrients, leafhopper populations, and leaf cutting ants in coffee agroecosystems. Ramos and Varón are entomology students working with Bosque-Pérez, UI entomologist Sanford Eigenbrode, and CATIE entomologist Luko Hilje. Their team examines the compatibility of coffee farm production and environmental quality in Costa Rica's Turrialba region.
While completed dissertations are still a few years off for many of the students, Polidoro mentions another less cerebral reward for UI IGERT fellows.
"Has anyone mentioned that our field site is, should I even say it, along the Caribbean coast? After a long, hot, sweaty week resulting in several new patches of unidentified rashes and bites, there is nothing like a refreshing dip in the tropical sea. Costa Ricans take weekends very seriously; no one will work with you on Saturday or Sunday. This isn't necessarily a hardship."
Another valuable lesson learned.
Contact Nilsa Bosque-Pérez at firstname.lastname@example.org.