A quick scan of news headlines over the past year and anyone can see how the intersection of our food, energy, and water systems is having major impacts across Kentucky, the nation, and the world. Interestingly, one UK program is taking a unique, multidisciplinary approach to train the next generation of innovators to work in these fields. The University of Kentucky National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) is a program aimed at fully integrating research and professional development within an inclusive, multidisciplinary, and supportive academy with a focus on solving problems inherent to Appalachia. Trainees are mainly graduate (both Masters and Ph.D.) students – albeit undergraduates have also been involved – in fields like Chemistry, Forestry, Agricultural Economics, Plant and Soil Sciences, as well as Chemical, Civil, and Biosystems Engineering. The UK NRT has to date involved more than a dozen faculty from eight departments, 49 graduate trainees, and four undergraduate students. Their research strives to develop innovations at the nexus of food, energy, and water systems (INFEWS), utilizing a transdisciplinary approach to address challenges associated with this nexus at home and abroad.
The NRT relies on individual development plans, provides coaching on career planning (including resume building and interview preparation), organizes field trips, and awards grants to fund transdisciplinary research projects. Six research proposals have been submitted to date and five of those proposals have been funded with grants of $10,000 to $15,000. The NRT has assisted four trainees to participate in domestic internships and eight international experiences in Europe and Canada. The NRT has also made strides in broadening the participation of students from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM. Notably, >60% of the trainees are students of color, 57% are women or non-binary students, 30% are first-generation students, 11% are LGBTQ+ students, and 9% have a disability. Students involved also attend – and present their work at a yearly Food, Energy, and Water Symposium (FEWS)–a multidisciplinary event that brings together people working in these important and interconnected research fields to engage with and learn from each other. FEWS includes several plenary, breakout, and poster sessions allowing for researchers to present their work.
The NRT offers and encourages trainees to participate in many professional development opportunities, often providing trainees funding to do so. The UK NRT recognizes graduate students commonly struggle to procure funding to travel to conferences or workshops, with funds available often capped. Kent Pham, a 3rd year Ph.D. student in the Integrated Plant and Soil Sciences program participating in the UK NRT, received funds to attend two national conferences this year. Kent’s research is in microbial ecology, specifically studying microbial community changes due to crop rotation, which has important agricultural applications. He is looking at the impacts of hemp on the microbial communities within the soil to determine if hemp can replace or supplement crop rotations. Current crop rotations tend to include soybean or other legumes that are good nitrogen fixers and replenish soil nitrogen, necessary for crop production. Depending on the results of his research, it can be communicated to farmers that hemp is not just a cash crop, but also contributes to soil health, which can improve long-term crop yields.
Another trainee, Kyra Sigler, is a 2nd year Master’s student in Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. Her research focuses on contaminants (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and neonicotinoid insecticides) in and around wastewater treatment plants in central Kentucky. Many states within the US are going through water quality and water scarcity issues. Says Kyra: “Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), describe a class of more than 12,000 chemicals used in everyday products: food wrappers, non-stick pans, firefighting foam, carpeting, clothing, and cosmetics. They’re often called “forever chemicals” because their carbon-fluorine chains are among the strongest chemical bonds in nature and take an extremely long time to break down. Once they’re in an ecosystem, that ecosystem is stuck with them. The chemicals can be found in soil, air, water, fish tissue, and even in fruits and vegetables that have grown in PFAS-contaminated soil.”
Researchers and students like Kyra seek to create solutions to these pollutants, while the UK NRT supports them to do so by facilitating their acquisition of training and skills at home and abroad. “I went abroad to study at IHE Delft Institute for Water Resources for three weeks this past summer,” says Kyra. “The course I took was on environmental and social impact assessments for water-related policies and developments. I wanted to take a course that combined the human aspect of water quality and considered the social repercussions of laws and treatment technologies that engineers might be eager to implement. In the course we worked in teams to write an impact assessment for a dam in Kenya, so instead of just considering how the dam would function to provide water to nearby communities, we also had to consider the impact it would have on environmental and human health, livelihoods, community conflict, etc.” The IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, which is based in the Netherlands, is the foremost water education institution in the world.
Kentucky has a long history as a natural resource-based economy, as it has been one of the top producers of timber, one of the top exporters of coal, and remains among the top agricultural states in the Southeast. As the US and the global economy move away from fossil fuels, Kentuckians face some challenges. The Commonwealth must address the environmental challenges associated with coal production, monoculture farming, and polluted water systems. That is why the NRT focuses on supporting UK students and researchers from several disciplines as they work to solve the food, energy, and water issues that affect Kentucky.
“The UK NRT strives to bring together faculty and students of many different disciplines as they work to tackle big challenges at the food, energy, and water nexus,” said Dr. Eduardo Santillan-Jimenez, Principal Investigator of the NRT. “In addition, the UK NRT is pleased to be able to support its trainees as they gather the training they need inside and outside academia at home and abroad.”