UD’s Sparks named 2015 American Chemical Society medalist

UD's Sparks named 2015 American Chemical Society medalistThe University of Delaware’s Donald Sparks has been selected as the 2015 medalist for the Geochemistry Division of the American Chemical Society (ACS), a congressionally chartered independent membership organization that represents professionals at all degree levels and in all fields of chemistry and sciences that involve chemistry.

Sparks, the S. Hallock du Pont Chair in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, Francis Alison Professor, director of the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN) and a leader of the University’s Environmental Soil Chemistry Group, is the first soil scientist to receive the prestigious award. Sparks also holds joint appointments in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the School of Marine Science and Policy.

Of learning that he had received the award, Sparks said he was “overjoyed.”

“It means a lot to me because it’s recognition not just of what I’ve done, but also of the people I have worked with,” he said. “I’ve had a remarkable group of students and post-doctoral researchers over the years and certainly part of the recognition goes to them, too.”

Blake Meyers, chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences, said he was excited to learn that Sparks was receiving the award

“Don is an outstanding scholar, and this recognition by the ACS is a well-deserved honor that reflects the incredible contributions that he has made to the fields of soil science and geochemistry over many years,” Meyers said. “Don contributes his time generously to support environmental science here at UD, nationally and internationally. His work has helped develop the research infrastructure across campus, and he is also an excellent mentor to students, young scientists and faculty members.”

In the letter of nomination for the award sent by Scott Fendorf, a former doctoral student of Sparks who is now the Huffington Professor of Earth Sciences and chair of the Department of Environmental Earth System Science at Stanford University, he said that in addition to being a tremendous adviser and mentor, “Sparks is a leading scholar in geochemistry and soil chemistry, having contributed wide and deep to our understanding of reactions at the solid-water interface over the past 30 years. His research record illustrates both his productivity and impact: three books, nine books edited, 55 book chapters, and 225 research papers having nearly more than 9,000 citations (ISI count). This has resulted in a research program recognized as one of the world’s finest in geochemistry.”

Sparks has been the recipient of numerous awards including UD’s Francis Alison Award, the highest competitive award given by the University, and he was the first recipient of the UD Outstanding Doctoral Graduate Student Advising and Mentoring Award.

He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Soil Science Society of America, American Society of Agronomy, Geochemical Society, and European Association of Geochemists.

Other awards include Einstein Professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Liebig Medal from the International Union of Soil Sciences, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Sterling Hendricks medal, Northeast Association of Graduate Schools Geoffrey Marshall Mentoring Award, the Soil Science Research Award, the M.L. and Chrystie M. Jackson Soil Science Award, and the American Society of Agronomy’s Environmental Quality Award.

Sparks was president of both the Soil Science Society of America and the International Union of Soil Science. He has served as adviser to 90 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

Douglas Kent of the U.S. Geological Survey and chair of the ACS awards committee said that Sparks “has made far-reaching contributions to understanding the physical and chemical forms of metals in the poorly ordered, steadily changing materials that comprise soils, sediments and aquifers. In addition to these contributions, he has written books that have helped transform the field of soil chemistry and, through his role as an educator and mentor, has inspired a new generation of soil and environmental geochemists.”

Sparks, who has been a member of ACS for over 30 years, said it is “always nice to be recognized by your peers, and certainly it’s nice to be recognized by fellow soil scientists, but it was particularly so in this case because this is in the American Chemical Society. To be recognized by geochemists and environmental chemists means a lot because it shows that the work we’ve done has stretched across disciplines and is not just confined to one area.”

Thoughts on research

Of interdisciplinary research, Sparks said it has always been important but it is of a special significance now because scientists are trying to answer questions related to climate change, soil contamination and water quality that cross scientific boundaries.

When he first started his career, Sparks said the areas were much more in silos but now “there’s a lot of cross-disciplinary work, and so what people do in soil chemistry is no different from geochemistry, environmental chemistry or environmental engineering.”

Sparks said that over the course of his career, he has been a strong proponent of the importance of basic research and providing students the freedom to explore their ideas.

“If we don’t understand what’s happening in a basic way, then it is hard to try to apply it,” he said. “If you’re able to stick with a topic for a long enough period of time and dig deeply, you really understand things at a very fundamental and important way.”

Sparks added, “I’m a strong believer that if you have excellent students and then you give them a lot of freedom — of course I’m always there to help them and give them input and I want to know what they’re doing — but to give them that kind of independence I think has been a major factor as to why they’ve all been able to be placed well and been very successful.”

Current work

Sparks said that his current research interests include the study of contaminants in soils, such as metals like arsenic and chromium, and sea level rise.

“This Mid-Atlantic coast is very susceptible to sea level rise and we have a lot of these old, legacy contaminated industrial sites and it’s not clear at all what’s going to happen when we have inundation of sea water into those areas,” said Sparks, whose research group is trying to understand what happens to those contaminants under different seawater flooding scenarios.

His group has done extensive research since 1991 at synchrotron facilities, located at national laboratories, in the U.S., Canada and Europe. At these facilities they employ powerful X-ray sources to determine the form and reactivity of nutrients and metals in soils and minerals.

Sparks and his group are also investigating carbon cycling in the terrestrial environment, specifically the role of carbon complexation with soil minerals in retaining the carbon in the soil so that it is not emitted into the atmosphere and adding greenhouse gases, he said.

The issue is a big one as soils are a major player when it comes to sequestering carbon but it is hard to predict what will happen to the carbon in the soils in light of climate change.

This process has been studied as part of the Christina River Basin Critical Zone Observatory (CRB-CZO), which was funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in 2009.  Sparks said that much research has been conducted at the CRB-CZO concerning carbon sequestration in different land uses and positions on the landscape.

Sparks said he has been grateful to have been able to spend his career at the University of Delaware.

“UD has just been an incredible place to be. The wonderful support that I’ve received and the great facilities, and the ability to attract really exceptional students and post-docs has been a tremendous asset,” he said.

The medal will be presented to Sparks at a plenary symposium on Monday, March 23, 2015, at the 249th national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver. There will be an additional symposium to honor the contributions that Sparks has made to the field of geochemistry.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo courtesy of Donald Sparks

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CANR Dean Rieger travels to Africa to establish Borel Fellowship Program

CANR Dean Rieger travels to Africa to establish Borel Fellowship ProgramIn an effort to identify the first Borel Fellows at the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), as well as build the infrastructure and the agreements to mobilize people for the program, Dean Mark Rieger and other University professors will travel to Kenya in November.

The five-year Borel Fellows Program was established through a generous gift from James C. and Marcia Borel. James C. Borel is executive vice president at DuPont and a member of the University’s Board of Trustees.

The program is designed to allow for human capacity development – special training to enhance skills and understanding of processes — as African students will be provided the opportunity to travel to UD to earn their master’s degrees and then return home to contribute in a meaningful way to the agricultural development of their countries.

Rieger will be joined on the trip by Randy Wisser, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. They will visit the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in Nairobi, Kenya.

Rieger explained that AGRA operates on funding from the World Bank and other organizations, and “one of their projects is to connect students to universities and place them in various agricultural disciplines. They will help us screen and prepare students to come and then, of course, once they hit the ground here, then it’s our responsibility.”

Rieger said that the CANR officials would like to have one or two students a year from any country in Africa, not limiting the search to Kenya. “That’s just where the AGRA headquarters is and that’s where the arrangements would be made for the students,” he said.

The hope is to find candidates working in administrative agriculture at an agricultural university or another entity such as the Cooperative Groups for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Center, a consortium of centers around the world focused on agricultural commodities.

“We think that those people might be ideal candidates because they’ve been working at a fairly high level,” Rieger said. “Also they would provide students with resources because they will have to return to the home country and finish their research.”

Once a student returns to their home country, the faculty member from CANR who served as their mentor during their time at UD will travel to Africa to help them with their academic thesis defense.

“It will be a two-way program,” Rieger said. “The student will come to Delaware for a year, and go back and finish their thesis. Our faculty will then go to their home country. In the end, we hope that what we will have is someone who is capable of getting a job at a higher level and contributing more to agricultural development than they otherwise could have been.”

Rieger said that the trip will last a week and they will also visit a university and two or three CGIAR Centers, one of which deals with livestock improvement and one that deals with plant breeding.

Rieger said that having Wisser along will be a big plus as he “has actually been to Kenya and he knows some of the people in AGRA. That was a total coincidence because when we learned of the Borel’s gift, I thought immediately of plant breeding and I went to Randy. He said, ‘Oh, I know that person. I know the group over there,’ so it worked out really well. It is a small world in plant breeding.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Ambre Alexander Payne

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Researchers at UD use ancient gene to study virus biology

Researchers at UD use ancient gene to study virus biologyResearchers at the University of Delaware have discovered that an ancient gene — ribonucleotide reductase (RNR), which occurs in all cellular life — provides important biological insights into the characteristics of unknown viruses in the sea.

The results of this finding could ultimately lead to new tools for understanding the inner workings of marine microbial communities.

Eric Wommack, principal investigator on the project and a professor who holds joint appointments in the departments of Plant and Soil Sciences and Biological Sciences and the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, explained, “The reason we care about these inner workings is because of the influence of natural, microbial communities on the balance of carbon and nutrients in ecosystems. In order for us to understand how we’re impacting the natural systems of the planet, it all comes down to the movement of carbon and nutrients through systems. Anywhere there are viruses infecting bacteria, which is everywhere, this is a possible tool that can be used.”

Much of the work was conducted by Eric Sakowski, a doctoral student in the Department of Biological Sciences, along with a team of graduate and undergraduate students.

The results of the study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“This research shines a light on viral ‘dark matter’ — a major challenge to understanding the diversity of life on Earth,” says Matt Kane, program director in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology, which co-funded the research with NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences. “The identification of ribonuclotide reductase as a marker for studying viral diversity and ecology is an important new tool for revealing how viruses affect microbial interactions and processes.”

Biological classifications

Wommack said that one of the key things biologists do in order to understand how organisms function is to develop classification schemes — categorizing everything and then figuring out what those categories mean.

In the modern era, biologists do not have to rely simply on what they can see or measure, as new technologies allow them to examine genes.

“Looking at a sequence of DNA, it’s kind of like a record of the evolutionary changes that have happened among the organisms or viruses that have that gene,” said Wommack.

Using sequence data, researchers are able to do a lot more connecting of the dots, such as understanding all the little changes in DNA that happened between humans and the last non-human ancestor.


Wommack said this study, which began in 2011, is “distilling viral biology down to the level of this single RNR gene, which is a very ancient gene. We’re talking, possibly before even the first cell. This gene is believed to have been critical to the emergence of DNA-based life.”

Sakowski added that the gene is “so ancient that every cell on the planet that we know of has it.”

A lot of viruses also have the gene but the problem with studying environmental viruses is that most of them are completely unknown.

“When we’re studying these viruses, they aren’t viruses that we can observe. We can’t grow them in the lab, we can’t physically look at most of them, so the only thing we have to go on is the genetic sequence. And then, if you don’t have sequence data that you’ve seen before, it’s really hard to make conclusions about the virus that it came from,” said Sakowski.

That’s where the researchers turned to RNR.

Viral predictions

Because RNR is so old and critical to DNA replication — which means that it will be important to viruses — Wommack and Sakowski felt that the RNR gene would be a good choice for trying to connect its evolutionary history with viral biology.

“We are always looking for ways to use sequence data to describe something about the biology of the viruses that we see and answer some baseline questions, such as which host do they infect? How fast do they grow? Does the sequence connect with their physical shape?” said Wommack.

Sakowski looked at RNR sequences from known viruses to see if there were any biological trends that would provide context to the unknown viruses. Using this marker gene approach, he found several things using RNR sequences.

“A marker gene, like RNR, is a specific gene that we use to understand evolutionary relationships and the community structure of the viral populations that we find in the environment,” said Sakowski. “The first nice thing about RNR is that we were able to take a look at a much broader spectrum of the viruses that are present and see which ones are the most abundant, not just within one small group but across a breadth of diversity. This includes the most abundant, and we think, the most biologically important viruses in the environment. So we can get a better understanding of what these natural populations look like.”

With RNR in marine environments they found it mostly occurs in lytic viruses — viruses that replicate rapidly — that the researchers believe are the key players in controlling a lot of the bacterial populations and influencing things like energy flow and carbon and other nutrient cycles.

They have also found that by comparing the RNR gene sequences of known viruses with those from environmental viruses, they can make predictions about the physical shape of some environmental viruses. They can also predict more about the biology of those viruses.

“RNR is really interesting because there are three different classes based on how the enzyme reacts to oxygen,” said Sakowski. “There’s an oxygen-dependent enzyme that only works when there’s oxygen available, an oxygen-independent version that can work regardless of whether oxygen is present or absent, and an oxygen-sensitive version of the enzyme that only works in the absence of oxygen.”

By knowing which version of the RNR gene the virus is carrying, they know the conditions under which it is actively replicating so they can tell if it is infecting a host that is potentially an aerobe — a host that’s using oxygen — or if it is replicating in a host that is an anaerobe.

“We can really start to gain insight into some of those biological aspects that you couldn’t with some of the other genes that we’ve been looking at,” said Sakowski.

Womamck said that predicting which host groups these viruses may be infecting has been a “difficult question to answer, and an incredibly important one because we’re only looking at half the equation when we look at the virus. Obviously some host population was infected and killed to produce those viruses so we believe from the analysis that for some groups we can actually predict the host groups that produce that virus.”

The implications for the field of microbial ecology and environmental microbiology are that researchers can now go in and look at a viral community and potentially, over time, make predictions about which host populations could be most impacted by viral infection.

“What it means is that we’re dissecting the inner workings of the system, which is ultimately what science is aiming to do, to really understand how natural systems work,” said Wommack.

Now that the evolutionary analysis has been done and the drawing of connections with biological features has been completed, Wommack said they hope more researchers will use this information going forward.

The researchers were aided along the way by undergraduate researchers, Mara Hyatt and William Kress, who worked with Sakowski and Wommack through the support of undergraduate research internships from Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program and the Delaware Water Resources Center (DWRC). Sakowski was funded on a graduate fellowship through the DWRC

They also acknowledged the Delaware IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, both of which were instrumental in the research.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos and images by Lindsay Yeager

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UD researchers track fall migratory patterns of insects

Dr. Jeff Buler,  uses this balloon to collect insects for a study on fall insect migration. His assistants Jaci Smolinski and Matthew Levendosky launch this balloon in the evening (approx 500 feet in the air) with a net attached to it to capture insect specimens.To study the nocturnal flight patterns of migrating insects during the fall, researchers at the University of Delaware have been spending their nights on the Newark Farm launching a balloon equipped with a tow net to try to catalogue insect species.

Jeff Buler, assistant professor, and Charles Mason, professor, both in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, have teamed up for a pilot study on migrating insects during the fall, something that has not been well researched in the United States.

The professors are being assisted on the project by Matt Levondosky, a UD alumnus who was a wildlife ecology major, and Michael Palmer, a senior chemical and biomolecular engineering major who was brought into the project after taking an entomology course with Mason.

Buler said the study has been a nice mix of disciplines from within the department.

“I mostly study birds and bird migration but our department has a number of entomologists, so this is a nice collaboration between the wildlife ecologists and the entomologists,” he said.

To conduct the study, the researchers used a large balloon known as a helikite – a special kite with a helium filled balloon on loan from UD’s Department of Geography — with a tow net that has a catch bag at the end acting as a one-way funnel into which insects fly.

The balloon has been launched around sunset on the Newark Farm, between the Allen Laboratory and the apiary, where it flies for four hours. It is launched at that time because both insects and birds initiate their nocturnal flights around civil twilight, which is about 40 minutes after sunset.

Buler is leading the pilot project and said he was interested in the study because he uses radar to track bird migration and one of the biggest obstacles he faces in analyzing data is whether he is seeing insects or birds on the radar.

Usually, researchers who use radar to track bird migration use the air speeds of biological targets to differentiate between birds and insects.

“Birds are stronger fliers than insects so they’re generally moving at faster air speeds than the insects, which tend to act more like aerial plankton, just barely moving faster than the ambient wind speeds. That’s how we distinguish birds from insects on the radar, but we’d like to be able to collect some data to validate what we think we’re seeing,” Buler said. “That’s why I’m trying to sample to see if on those nights that we do see insects, we are also catching insects.”

Another reason for the study is that while insect migration has been widely studied in the spring, where pest insects can pose a problem for crops, it has not been very well studied in the U.S. in the fall.

In other places around the world — specifically China, India and Europe — entomologists have studied the fall migrations of insects closely. To get the UD study off the ground, Buler said the team relied heavily on those studies to learn how to utilize the balloon properly.

“A colleague I’ve been in contact with is Jason Chapman, who is a British entomologist, and he had a nice paper come out recently looking at the convergence of behavior between insects and birds,” said Buler. “Birds tend to be not as picky about the winds and they just sort of fly on most nights. Because of their own power, they can contend with the winds and get to where they want to go. But because insects are such weak fliers, they seem to be very choosy about the wind.”

Chapman and his collaborator Don Reynolds, another British entomologist, helped Buler’s team with the aerial trapping system.

“They have a very similar sort of aerial trapping system in which they use a helium balloon to lift a net and they sent me their schematic, which was the inspiration for us to build our own. I’ve been in contact with them and they’re excited about it because they said that nobody in North America has really done much and they’re interested in what we might find,” said Buler.

One problem the team members have encountered has been their inability to get the balloon as high as they want.

“We’re limited by how high we can fly. It can fly up to 500 feet, which is fine because there should be insects at that height, but its also likely that there are a bunch of insects above that height. But we’re getting far enough off the ground that we’re probably sampling this layer of insects in the air above the ground,” said Buler.

The insects that they have catalogued so far include a noctuid moth, the green cloverworm, which Doug Tallamy, professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, helped them identify.

Buler said the green cloverworm was interesting because it is a species that is known to winter along the Gulf Coast and migrate north in the spring, so it is likely that it was moving south through this area with the approach of fall.

As for the next steps for the project, Buler said he hopes to conduct the study again next fall.

“I’m more interested in the fall migration mostly because that’s less well studied,” he said.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Lindsay Yeager

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Awokuse named to Nigerian National Agricultural Policy Committee

Titus Awokuse named to Nigerian National Agricultural Policy CommitteeThe University of Delaware’s Titus Awokuse has been named to the 14-member Nigerian National Agricultural Policy Committee to help the country develop a strong policy roadmap and advise its agriculture ministry.

The committee includes agricultural experts, policy experts and economists from the private and public sectors, as well as research agencies, and will evaluate and assess projects related to agriculture nationally, especially with regard to the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) put in place as part of President Goodluck Jonathan’s National Economic Policy Transformation Agenda. 

Awokuse, chair of the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, traveled to Nigeria in September for the inauguration of the committee and said that there are many challenges that face agriculture in that nation.

“A big challenge to agricultural productivity and food security in Nigeria is the lack of adequate infrastructure to support food production and distribution,” said Awokuse. “Another issue of concern to Nigerian farmers is the lack of access to credit. Banks are reluctant to provide loans to farmers because the risk of default is high and farmers who need loans to embark on expanding their operations are unable to do so. The business financing mechanism is not in place to be able to access loans like what farmers are used to in America.”

Dealing with uncertainty is another issue that faces Nigerian growers. When an environmental event such as drought threatens crops, they have no crop insurance policy to help compensate them for the loss, though the federal government plans to launch a national crop insurance program for farmers in 2015.

There are also challenges in terms of international agricultural trade policy, where past policies and practices favored imports of staple foods at the expense of locally grown food products that could be sold domestically and on the international market.

Although Nigeria was a net food exporter in the 1960s, it’s has become a leading net importer of food and the largest global importer of rice. According to. Akinwumi Adesina, the minister of agriculture and rural development, the nation annually spends “on average $11 billion on importing wheat, rice, sugar and fish alone.”

Perhaps the biggest policy challenge, however, is the ability to facilitate agricultural production via access to agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and seeds. Nigeria has begun to deal with this problem through a national fertilizer project known as the Federal Government of Nigeria’s Growth Enhancement Support (GES) program.

Of the project, Awokuse said that it is ongoing and has been “a big improvement over the previous corruption-laden subsidized fertilizer distribution program that few farmers actually received. The GES program has been very successful in providing subsidized inputs to farmers directly instead of going through intermediaries. By 2013, over 10 million small holder farmers had been registered to participate in the GES program via an Electronic Wallet System which uses mobile phone technology to distribute subsidized electronic vouchers to farmers for receiving agricultural inputs.”

Now that the committee has been inaugurated, Awokuse said that Adesina asked members to serve in an ongoing policy advisory role and undertake several program assessment projects.

Awokuse will take an active role in assessing agricultural and international trade policy in Nigeria and will help to develop a more effective policy approach, looking at best practices in other countries, specifically the United States.

“I have taught agricultural policy at the University of Delaware for several years and believe some of the policy frameworks that are taken for granted in the U.S. Farm Bill could be very useful as we work on revamping the national agricultural policy in Nigeria,” said Awokuse. “We will also explore the development of an agricultural sector model that will be a comprehensive analytical model that could be used to analyze the potential impact of different policies and programs.”

As for what he is most looking forward to about being part of the committee, Awokuse said that it will be a great opportunity to be involved with meaningful work that will have a real benefit to the millions of people in the country, as well as Africa as a whole.

“Nigeria is usually referred to as the ‘Giant of Africa’ because it is the most populous country in Africa. It has about 174 million people — more than half of the U.S. population – and is the seventh most populous country in the world. It’s also the largest economy in Africa and internationally, it’s ranked as the 26th largest economy,” Awokuse said. “However in 2014, with income per capita of $2,688 and a ranking of 121, Nigeria’s standard of living still significantly lags many other nations. Even though there is a high level of poverty in the country, the future is bright and full of promise for Nigeria.”

He added, “Policies that are made in Nigeria have a huge impact on many people, as many of the countries in Africa look to Nigeria as a role model. If something works well in Nigeria, most likely it’s going to affect other countries on the African continent.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Danielle Quigley and courtesy of Titus Awokuse

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UD researchers, students work on plan to revitalize Laurel

UD researchers, students work on plan to revitalize LaurelAn interdisciplinary University of Delaware research team has joined forces with the citizens of Laurel, Delaware, to map out a plan to revitalize and provide specific landscape design recommendations for the town, specifically the waterfront area along the Broad Creek.

The project is known as “The Ramble,” and features a large walkway that will extend the length of the town and includes six major development projects. 

The idea came about when Ed Lewandowski, Delaware Sea Grant’s coastal communities development specialist who had been working with the town on implementing water quality mandates in the river as a part of a regional effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed, discovered that the town was also interested in coming up with a master plan to re-develop the Broad Creek waterfront.

He got in touch with Jules Bruck, associate professor of landscape design in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), who worked through the summer with Lorelly Solano, a doctoral student in urban affairs and public policy, to develop and finalize the plans.

In addition, students from Bruck’s computer-aided design (CAD) class helped spur the project proposal on by studying and presenting examples of small town revitalizations to help flesh out viable and environmentally friendly options for the space.

Bruck put a proposal together for the Laurel Redevelopment Center — a private, nonprofit organization that works to support economic development in the town, located alongside Route 13 in Sussex County — and Lewandowski held focus groups to learn what the community wanted, as it was important for the team to come up with a proposal that pleased the citizens of Laurel.

“We really loved the idea that we were having a great collaboration between this not-for-profit, three colleges at the University, undergraduate students and members of the community of Laurel,” said Bruck.

Bruck is a member of the CANR faculty and Solano is studying in the Institute for Public Administration, a center in the School of Public Policy and Administration in the College of Arts and Sciences, while Delaware Sea Grant is housed in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

The group presented drafts of the plan to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Planners Technical Advisory Committee (PTAC), which offered advice on the plan and how the group could undertake modifications to make it more ecologically sound.

In fact, Bruck said that halfway though the project PTAC was able to provide an updated 100-year flood plain map to help the group revise its plan to accommodate for flood plain restrictions.

Also, Troy Mix, a policy scientist in Institute for Public Administration and a member of the American Institute for Certified Planners, looked at the ideas and offered his opinion about the direction the group was taking.

“We were proposing a housing development and park and playground, a new block of mixed used homes, or mixed use stores with houses above — sort of like a mixed block community that you’d see in downtown Newark, with people living above the stores,” said Bruck.

The proposal also used ecological landscaping as the main conceptual framework to revitalize the small town using green infrastructure such as vegetated bioswales —used to remove pollution from surface water runoff — as well as the planting of thousands of trees and the installation of permeable parking surfaces that will allow water to infiltrate through instead of having the storm water run off the surface.

“We have some of these at UD, actually, and they are very beneficial for water quality. It seemed especially appropriate for Laurel, where we are dealing with a creek running through town,” said Bruck.

The team also looked at how to brand and market Laurel, particularly in the ecotourism market. Input by the citizens of Laurel showed they also were interested in having people come to the town to live and be part of the community.

The planners learned that while having a tourism aspect was important, it was also important to market the town to future community members.

“A lot of small towns do get a bit of a revitalization kick if they have an artsy community and people come on the weekends and go to the art fair and then go home, but Laurel is really interested in having people come there and live there and be part of the community,” said Bruck.

The group was able to conduct an interview with a UD student from Laurel to get their perspective on the town, such as what it was like growing up in Laurel and if they would move back to figure out how to encourage others to move there.

Project collaboration

Bruck said she thinks the collaborative nature of the project led to the community members agreeing with even some of the potentially controversial aspects of the plan, such as proposals to retrofit houses to become cafés with apartment living upstairs, and adding new buildings, a new pedestrian bridge and an underpass below the existing railroad bridge.

The ideas were met with little resistance when the project was presented to the community at a Laurel town meeting.

“We had such a diverse audience — there were state legislators, the mayor, the school superintendent, community members, contractors, environmentalists — and nobody had any objections,” said Bruck. “At the end of the meeting there was a long pause after I asked for questions and one woman said, ‘I can’t believe you put into the plan everything we vocalized during the focus group. I couldn’t understand how our words would ever get translated into a landscape design and you have done it.’ I think I owe the success of the project to the real collaborative nature and just being honest about the process.”

Mix, who provided advice on the market feasibility of the proposed design, offered reflections on the public presentation, saying, “I feel honored to have played even a tiny part in the project. I’ve not seen a public forum end with the kind of positive reaction I saw — definitely the mark of a well-executed process and inspiring to witness.”

Next steps

Bruck and Lewandowski will travel to Laurel on Oct. 22 to present the proposal at a Rotary Club meeting and talk about the plans moving forward.

The first phase of the project would be a large infrastructure construction program in which everything would be put in place for the walking system, such as the pathways, lights and benches.

Also involved in the first phase of the project would be the installation of a Can-Do park that can be used by people of all abilities in a lot where the town has its Fourth of July festivities. Because of the location, the park is tentatively named Independence Playground.

Bruck said the Ramble is the backbone of the design and that “it will make a big difference in the town. Right now, I think there is a lack of connectivity in the downtown area and I think it’s going to make a real difference in the way the community perceives the space along Broad Creek.  It’s a very exciting project.”

Article by Adam Thomas

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UD Cooperative Extension helps launch butterfly garden at Kirk Middle

Shots of dedication and ribbon cutting of the Monarch Waystation at George V. Kirk Middle School.  The event is the culmination of a joint effort between the Master Gardeners and the 4-H Afterschool program at Kirk.Three monarch butterflies traveling to Mexico for the winter got their trip started on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at the dedication ceremony for Kirk Middle School’s newly installed Monarch Waystation. 

The Monarch Waystation was created with the assistance of University of Delaware Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners Peg Baseden, Ellen Hahn, Fred Mann and Gil Martin, who provided support to the Delaware 4-H Afterschool Program’s Recycling Club. 

Fontella Taylor, an extension educator and site director for the 4-H Afterschool Program at Kirk, Gauger-Cobbs and Shue-Medill middle schools, explained that the Monarch Waystation helped bring together many parts of Cooperative Extension.

“4-H is a huge part of Cooperative Extension. It was great to partner with Carrie Murphy, an Extension educator in horticulture who coordinates the Master Gardeners who came out to help with the butterfly garden,” Taylor said. “They helped design the garden, select appropriate plants, and show the kids how to plant and maintain a garden.”

Taylor added that once the 4-H Afterschool Recycling Club gets a composting project off the ground, she is hoping to partner with Cooperative Extension Master Food Educators to teach the group about healthy living and eating.

Monarch Waystation

The Monarch Waystation features all native vegetation, particularly milkweed and nectar plants that were donated to the school.

“We emphasized using native plants to Delaware and the milkweed is for the larval stage, or the caterpillar stage. The nectar plants are for the adult stage,” said Mann, who graduated from UD with a degree in entomology. “The caterpillar has chewing mouth parts to chew the leaves and the butterfly adult has a straw-like mouth part that goes into the flower and sucks up the nectar.”

Hahn said the Master Gardeners are trying to put milkweed into every garden they can because the monarch butterfly population has decreased so significantly.

“The monarch population has decreased to the point where, while the monarchs will not go extinct, people think that the migration will. The reason that the monarchs are in trouble is that there is so much less milkweed than there used to be,” said Hahn.

To track migration, the butterflies released at the school were all tagged under their wings so that when they are found, they can be catalogued by the Monarch Watch organization to show how far they traveled.

“You put these little tags on the underside of their wings and there’s a number we record when we release it,” Mann said. “We record whether the butterfly is male or female, where we released it from and the date, and then that’s put into a database. Whoever finds the butterfly can go back, look at the number and email Monarch Watch.”

Hahn said that the monarch butterflies usually travel to Mexico for the winter, an amazing 2,000-mile journey for a creature that weighs about the same as a paper clip.

“In the spring, they start the return journey and the first generation gets to maybe northern Mexico or Texas, where they lay eggs and then die. It takes about three generations for monarchs to arrive back here and it’s usually in June,” said Hahn.

Hahn has been to the sanctuary in Mexico where the monarchs travel for the winter, and said that the site has to be seen to be believed

It’s just an unbelievable experience. It’s very high in the mountains and it’s just the right climate so that they kind of go into almost a torpor. They expend very little energy and they winter there in these huge bundles, bundles that I just can’t even describe, thus the reason that we don’t want to lose the migration,” said Hahn.

Mann said that to get an idea of what the sanctuaries look like, one simply has to look up at a tree full of leaves. “They actually look like leaves because they’re so dense. Look up at a tree’s leaves and pretend they’re all butterflies, that’s how dense they are,” said Mann.

4-H Afterschool

The Monarch Waystation is just one of many improvements made to the courtyard area of Kirk thanks to the 4-H Afterschool Program’s Recycling Program at the school.

The area has chickens, a tool shed, six raised garden beds and a compost area.

Jackie Kook, who teaches the agriscience program at Kirk, said students learn a lot by getting hands-on experience with the plants and the animals in the courtyard.

“The kids totally transform when they come out here. I’ve seen not just my students, but students with other teachers as well, and being out here is such a treat,” Kook said. “They love to watch the animals, they want to hold and interact with the animals, and our chickens are layer hens so they produce eggs that we give to the 4-H Afterschool Family and Consumer Science program for their cooking labs.”

The idea to add a Monarch Waystation came about when Helene Ross, who teaches the Recycling Program with Kook, read about them on the Monarch Watch website.

Ross connected with Master Gardeners who came out to do a site assessment and give instructions on where to construct the garden. The students, with the help of Master Gardeners, then started building the garden in April.

Ross said that now that the garden has been installed, students in the Recycling Club will do a research project on the monarchs.

“Since we have the monarch butterfly garden, the kids just started doing research on the butterflies. They looked up the information on life cycles, and they’re going to look at some data on how many butterflies have been affected, where the milkweed has lessened in the United States, and try and tie the research in with the garden,” said Ross.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Doug Baker

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Federal funding to UD supports oyster farming in Delaware’s Inland Bays

Celebrating UD’s efforts to support aquaculture in Delaware’s Inland Bays are David Small, DNREC secretary; Sen. Tom Carper; Sunny Jardine, UD's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment; Ed Lewandowski, Delaware Sea Grant; Chris Bason, Center for the Inland Bays; and Kathy Beisner, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Celebrating UD’s efforts to support aquaculture in Delaware’s Inland Bays are David Small, DNREC secretary; Sen. Tom Carper; Sunny Jardine, UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment; Ed Lewandowski, Delaware Sea Grant; Chris Bason, Center for the Inland Bays; and Kathy Beisner, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) joined local and state officials, representatives from the University of Delaware and the Center for the Inland Bays to announce two federal grants to support the development of oyster farming in Delaware’s Inland Bays.

“These grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce and USDA Rural Development will look into the business potential for Delaware shellfish aquaculture,” said Carper. “Oyster farming is a win-win for Delaware, since oysters improve water quality and farming will create another local industry that provides jobs. There is good work being done in Delaware by both public and private partners, and these grants will help further that research.”

The U.S. Department of Commerce awarded $164,341 to the University of Delaware to study the economics of ecosystem services from aquaculture and estimating consumer willingness to pay for oysters marketed as local and marketed as improving water quality.

“We are all extremely excited to see oyster aquaculture come to our state, because oysters have the potential to be both good for the economy and good for the environment and it is somewhat rare that you see these two things go hand in hand,” said Sunny Jardine, assistant professor of marine science and policy in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE). “Having oysters in the water improves water quality, because oysters filter nutrient pollutants out of the water, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, which come from agricultural and urban runoff and pollute our water bodies.”

At UD Jardine is coordinating with other scientists and economists including: George Parsons, an environmental economist in CEOE; Joanna York, a marine ecologist in CEOE; John Ewart, Delaware Sea Grant aquaculture specialist; and Kent Messer and Maik Kecinski, experimental economists in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Also, USDA Rural Development awarded the University’s Sustainable Coastal Communities Initiative a $28,287 Rural Business Enterprise Grant to work with the firm ab+c Creative Intelligence to research and develop a branding strategy for Inland Bay aquaculture products that will be used by all the new shellfish farmers to brand and market their products to restaurants and customers.

“With funding support from USDA Rural Development, we have initiated an effort to develop a strong, local market share for Inland Bays aquaculture products,” said Ed Lewandowski, Delaware Sea Grant’s coastal communities development specialist. “Creating brand affinity with consumers and brand equity for producers will be absolutely critical to gaining successful product entry and then sustaining this market success.”

Setting the stage for shellfish

More than 10 years of applied research, demonstration and technology transfer work guided by Delaware Sea Grant (DESG) in cooperation with the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays (CIB), and Delaware State University has documented the value and benefit of shellfish aquaculture as a means to improve the quality of the Inland Bays estuary and to enhance local seafood production and economic development.

During 2013, DESG participated in a shellfish aquaculture stakeholder work group organized by the CIB to conduct spatial planning for bottom lease siting, and to draft statutory code and regulatory language to reinstate a bottom leasing system for commercial shellfish aquaculture for the Inland Bays.

Other participants included the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Delaware Department of Agriculture, Sussex County Economic Development, Local on the Menu/Farm to Table Program, recreational fishing interests, commercial clammers, and prospective shellfish aquaculturists.

Sea Grant participated in monthly meetings of the spatial planning and policy sub-committees, coordinated a policy paper “Shellfish Aquaculture in Delaware’s Inland Bays: Status, Opportunities and Constraints,” and participated in meetings to brief Delaware state legislators. Completed draft statutory code changes were incorporated into legislation (House Bill 160) that was submitted to the General Assembly in June 2013.

HB160 was passed unanimously by the House and the Senate in June and the bill was signed into law by Gov. Jack Markell on Aug. 28, 2013. The aquaculture regulations were published in August 2014.

About Delaware Sea Grant

The University of Delaware was designated as the nation’s ninth Sea Grant College in 1976 to promote the wise use, conservation and management of marine and coastal resources through high-quality research, education and outreach activities that serve the public and the environment.

UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment administers the program, which conducts research in priority areas ranging from aquaculture to coastal hazards.

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New CANR class will teach students the science, business of ice cream

new ice cream class offered at UDA new class offered during the University of Delaware’s Winter Session will give students an inside look at the science behind ice cream production as well as the factors involved in running a start-up business and getting ice cream from the cow to the cone. 

The three-credit course — The Science and Business of Ice Cream: From the Cow to the Cone — will be taught from noon-1:45 p.m., Monday through Friday, starting Monday, Jan. 12, at Townsend Hall.

It will be instructed by Melinda Litvinas, UDairy Creamery manager, with guest lectures by Department of Animal and Food Sciences faculty members.

Litvinas said the department has been very helpful with the implementation of the class.

“This class is very collaborative with the food science faculty and they are extremely supportive of it. They’ve been really helpful and it’s going to be exciting because any student who takes it is going to get exposed not just to one professor but they’re going to meet everyone in the department,” said Litvinas.

Kali Kniel, professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences (ANFS), said that having the class was a natural fit as the UDairy Creamery “has been successful at showing and reminding the UD community that agriculture touches our lives every day.”

Kniel added that in the course “students will learn about the science and the secrets behind the creation and development of ice cream. Students may be surprised to know that the way ice crystals form during freezing is responsible for the creamy mouth feel you obtain when eating ice cream. This course will also use ice cream as a model to discuss food flavor trends and novel processing technologies. Today we all want to know more about where our food comes from, and in ‘Cow to Cone’ students will learn just that.”

Dallas Hoover, professor in ANFS, said that it is important to allow UD students the chance to understand how their ice cream is made and that since ice cream making is in the realm of food science, the class is the perfect way to provide that learning opportunity.

The class will involve lots of hands-on activities, such as tours of regional creameries and dairy processing facilities throughout the tri-state area. Also, students will get to spent time at the UDairy Creamery on the College of Agriculture and Natural Resourcescampus.

Litvinas said the class combines both the science of making ice cream and the business of selling ice cream.

“The first half is dedicated toward the science of ice cream, which also includes product development, and the students will do a big project on ice cream related product development,” said Litvinas. “We also will cover the business side and give some insight about how we run things here, and we will consider different start-up factors, such as what is involved if you want to start an ice cream business — everything from the cow to the cone.”

Litvinias said that she has always wanted to offer this sort of class in order to teach more students about the UDairy Creamery, but it had been hard to find a time that worked.

“We’re so busy during the spring and fall semesters that our time is not really available to allow for people to come to the creamery and work on a project. But we’re here to educate the students and we want to offer the opportunity to those who aren’t interns or employees to let them see what’s going on here and learn from it. That’s why we’re here in the first place, so people can learn how to make ice cream,” said Litvinas.

Jennifer Rodammer, supervisor at the UDairy Creamery, will also be helping with the class, doing hands-on work at the facility with product development and projects.

Rodammer will also talk about the Moo Mobile ice cream truck and the business aspects of it.

“Our goal the last three years really has been to incorporate the creamery more into the curriculum and more into the student awareness,” she said. “It’s been a challenge to find the time to do it so we’re very excited to be able make use of Winter Session to incorporate it.”

The class is open to all UD students and will be capped at 30.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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UD selected as partner in USDA Northeast Climate Hub

UD selected as a USDA northeast climate hubThe University of Delaware is one of 12 land grant universities that have been selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to serve as part of a New Hampshire-based Northeast Climate Hub. 

The climate hubs have been created to centralize information from universities and federal agencies related to climate change risk adaptation and mitigation. The hubs will address increasing risks such as fires, invasive pests, devastating floods and crippling droughts on a regional basis and translate science and research into information that can be used by farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to adapt and adjust their resource management.

Jennifer Volk, a Cooperative Extension specialist, will serve as UD’s point of contact for the Northeast Climate Hub.

Michelle Rodgers, associate dean for Cooperative Extension in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), and Tom Sims, deputy dean for CANR, also will be involved with the hub.

At UD, Volk and other researchers will first consider what farmers and land managers in the region view as the biggest climate risks to gain an understanding of their needs, as well as how they can help meet those needs both through research and Extension services.

This information will be gathered through a survey being adapting to suit the Northeast that will be sent out in the near future.

Volk also will share research that she has undertaken concerning salt tolerant crops with the hub, something she said is important for states in this region, especially those like Delaware that have many miles of coastline.

Seashore mallow

Volk’s research involves seashore mallow, a native wetland plant, as an alternative crop on salt-impacted lands.

Of seashore mallow, Volk explained that it can be found anywhere along the East Coast, basically from New Jersey south, and then along the Gulf Coast all the way to Texas.

“It’s a perennial; it’s basically a shrub so it comes back every year and it has a very pretty pink flower on it. It has seeds that are similar to soybeans, where about 20 percent of the seed is oil, so there’s potential for it to be used as a biofuel or cooking oil. We’ve been looking at potential uses for the stems, and poultry litter bedding is one of them,” said Volk.

Researchers from across UD helped with the study, and the results could provide chicken growers with an alternative to using pine shavings for bedding, which are expensive and harder to find.

Volk said that a preliminary assessment has already been completed with the help of Bill Brown, a Cooperative Extension agent for poultry.

“We got Bill some of the stem material, went through the process of chipping it up to get it in nice, uniform pieces, and then he did a pen study looking at traditional pine shavings, sea shore mallow, Miscanthus and switch grass and comparing bird health, growth and paw quality under those four different types of beddings,” said Volk.

Warmer weather

Besides salt tolerant crops, Volk said that another important issue for Delaware farmers and growers is a warming trend that may continue into the future, making the state hotter on an annual basis and in the summer. This could affect both temperature and precipitation.

“With climate projections, they’re very variable for precipitation but it looks like there is potential for more intense rainfalls and rain not necessarily occurring when crops need them. I think the potential for droughts and for flood outs are things that people can anticipate as climate continues to change,” said Volk.

Volk added that Delaware has a great deal of irrigation and it is hard to predict the quantity of irrigation supplies if they have to be used to help offset the impacts of hot, rainless days.

“The question is, do we know that we’re going to have the groundwater resources into the future if everybody is using it for irrigation at the rate that we’re using it now? It’s going to likely continue so those are the things that we need to consider,” said Volk.

At UD, Volk said there are people doing climate-related research in the fact that they are working to improve production and help protect how production grows in the future. These researchers include Gordon Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences (PLSC), and Emmalea Ernest, associate scientist the department, Richard Taylor, an Extension specialist, and James Adkins, an associate scientist of agricultural research and education who is doing irrigation work.

As for what she is most looking forward to about working with the Northeast Climate Hub, Volk said, “I think connecting more with farmers and learning what their take is on climate change. I think a lot of people feel that farmers think ‘Whatever, climate change is going to happen, we’ll deal with it,’ but do they really think that there is anything to be worried about and what do they need from us as their trusted source of information.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Lindsay Yeager

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