CFAES Students Gain International Research Experience, and Much More

Jan. 21, 2014

Photo caption:  Buckeye Pride in Senegal - O-H-I-O.  CFAES graduate students in a farm field in Senegal (L to R: Matthew Bright, Spencer Debenport, and Chelsea DeLay)

College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences graduate and undergraduate students since summer of 2013 are part of a research project in Senegal; sponsored by the National Science Foundation Division of Biology within the Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) project. Richard Dick, professor of Soil Microbial Ecology in the School of Environment and Natural Resources directs the $2.6 million NSF PIRE project that is focusing on the Sahel where landscape degradation is causing desertification and seriously reducing food security.  A potential solution is two unrecognized native shrub species that can be intercropped to provide benefits to soils and crops while restoring Sahelian agroecosystems.

The graduate students are conducting research for about two years in Senegal on these shrub species that can coexist with crops in the Sahel. They are focusing on the microbiology of shrub rhizosphere and associated interactions with crops. This includes studying beneficial bacteria and fungi, particularly mycorrhizal fungi.  These beneficial organisms can promote crop growth by producing plant hormones, improving nutrient status, increasing drought tolerance, and resistance to diseases. Professor Dick indicates “this research is important because it is developing fundamental principles to design microbiologically based cropping systems that reduce or eliminate external purchased inputs and increase crop yields using a locally available resource. Such a system is critical and appropriate for subsistence farmers in the Sahel who have limited resources and are risk adverse”. He further reflected on the compelling educational component stating “the project is providing OSU graduate students a unique chance to do cutting edge research in a developing country and expand their cultural horizons. It also opens up new avenues for international opportunities and collaboration in their future career.”

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with the students and learn more about their research and their observations of living and doing research in Senegal.

Matthew Bright is a second year doctoral student in the School of Environment and Natural Resources specializing in soil science, advised by Dr. Dick.

Bright is doing his dissertation research on the ecology of mycorrhizal fungi in these shrub intercrop systems, focusing on pearl millet (the staple crop of Sahelian farmers). Mycorrhizal fungi benefit crops by infecting roots and with their hyphae significantly increase rooting capabilities and in turn promote nutrient and water uptake. He is investigating how the shrub, Guiera senegalensis, can promote mycorrhizal spore innoculum and infection rates of millet. He is pursuing the very novel mechanism that mycorrhizal hyphae can connect the shrub roots to millet roots as a means of transferring nutrients and small amounts of water to the millet plant. The results could provide a whole new strategy for reducing nutrient and drought stress for crops in the harsh semi-arid environment of the Sahel. 

Matthew reflects that his time in Senegal has been far more than just a research experience. “Each time we go to a rural village to sample a farmer's field, we have an incredibly enriching experience sharing a lunch with the farmers and their families, being helped with our sampling by the village boys, and learning about the rich cultural heritage of farming in Senegal,” Matthew states. “In addition, I do my daily laboratory research in Dakar with Senegalese and French students. This has enabled me to learn French and how other countries conduct research.” However, research in Senegal can be challenging with frequent water outages in the lab as well as constant heat, humidity and bugs. He notes, “I am very grateful for this opportunity to be here where I can be stretched to learn about international research, the culture and people of Senegal while conducting doctoral research on tropical soil microbiology.”


Matthew Bright (kneeling) and Spencer Debenport
conducting field research.

Spencer Debenport is a second year doctoral student in the Department of Plant Pathology who is being advised by Dr. Brian McSpadden Gardener.

While in Senegal, Spencer is conducting research on beneficial bacteria and fungi of shrub rhizospheres and how that influences the microbial communities on crops grown in association with the shrub. This will include testing these organisms for their potential to improve millet growth and resistance to diseases and possibly drought. Additionally, he is surveying the extent of disease organisms on millet.  He is using microbial community molecular and culturing analyses in order to identify potential plant growth promoting microorganisms associated with millet plants growing with Guiera senealensis . “Once identified, we can use information about the ecology of those organisms to improve this inter-cropping system in Senegal,” Spencer said. Reflecting on his time so far in Senegal, he notes that although there are challenges to do research in Senegal, there are other rewards that would not be possible if he was doing the research in the US. “Working on a project like this in a developing country poses unique challenges with logistics and customs (including having to schedule in time to drink ataya tea with our cooperating farmers), but it is so rewarding to be able to conduct basic research that we expect will directly benefit the farmers of the Sahel.”


Spencer Debenport (center) along with Matthew Bright sampling root
rhizosphere soil of millet to be taken back to the lab for microbiology analyses

Chelsea DeLay is a soil science research associate in the School of Environment and Natural Resources specializing under the direction of Dr. Dick.

Chelsea is investigating soil nitrogen dynamics of millet crops within and outside of shrub influence. In particular she is investigating whether these shrubs promote N fixation by harboring microorganisms that can take atmospheric N and incorporate it into soils. Chelsea notes, “Most of our samples come from farmer’s fields in various villages throughout Senegal, where we are always welcomed with open arms. At the end of our sampling day, we are usually invited to eat and drink tea with the village chief.” She reflects on the impact of the project and notes, “After spending so much time in the villages, I am much more aware of the positive impact this project can have for Senegalese people, and I am very excited to see how our results can be implemented in the field.”  She also reflects on the experience personally and as a budding scientist. “So far my experience in Senegal has really taught me how to adapt to new situations, in both my work and personal life. Almost every day there is a new challenge I would not be faced with back home. Whether it be working around issues in the lab or trying to bargain for the right price at the market.” Chelsea said. “Communication is by far my biggest challenge so far, but most people are very patient with my French, and are persistent in trying to teach me Wolof, the native language.” Despite these challenges, Chelsea says, “there has not been one moment I regret coming here.”


Chelsea DeLay in the Laboratory of Microbial Ecology of the Institut
Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles  in Dakar, Senegal

The project brings together French, African, and US institutions for the first time and includes Ohio State University (lead), University of California at Merced; Central State University (Wilberforce, OH); Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles, Senegal; IRD (Montpellier, France) Laboratory of Tropical Microbial Ecology, Senegal;  and University of Thies, Senegal.

The NSF PIRE project, Hydrologic Redistribution and Rhizosphere Biology of Resource Islands in Degraded Agroecosystems of the Sahel: A PIRE in Tropical Microbial Ecology is a 5-year $2.6 million project. Professor Richard Dick is the Director, along with Dr. Brian McSpadden Gardener, OSU Plant Pathology; Dr. John Reeve, OSU Microbiology; and Dr. Teamrat Ghezzehei, University of California at Merced as co-investigators of the project.  Additional components to the project are a study on hydrology of the these shrub intercrop systems and a major educational component that includes undergraduate internships in Senegal and two advanced training courses for early career scientists (US and African) in tropical soil microbiology.

NSF’s PIRE program, instituted in 2005, supports international collaborations in research and education to advance scientific solutions to daunting global challenges.

Published on February 5, 2014.