Michael Casazza ’14 has spent a lot of time thinking about agricultural ecosystems. As a junior majoring in Environmental Conservation Studies at the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COSLA) within the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Casazza is devoted to taking a science-based approach, with a special focus on soil science, to the discipline. “Agricultural systems are vital to our survival,” says Casazza, “but we’re facing environmental problems such as nitrate leaching, salinization, and topsoil and soil organic matter loss. I want to contribute to the data that will lead to a more sustainable management system.”
As a research assistant in the Grandy Lab at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Casazza is conducting a subset of experiments within the soil fertility projects of post-doctoral researcher Lisa Tiemann. As a 2012 recipient of a prestigious three-year $520,299 fellowship through the National Science Foundation’s Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (NSF SEES) program, Tiemann has and will be sampling soils from 150 diverse sites around Kibale National Park.
Casazza’s competency with processing and analyzing soil has afforded him opportunities to further his studies farther afield. As a 2013 recipient of an International Research Opportunities Program fellowship from the Hamel Center, Casazza will travel with Tiemann to Uganda for nine weeks this summer to assist her in ongoing research in a country faced with food insecurity due to rising population levels and rapidly diminishing soil fertility.
Casazza acknowledges that this opportunity would not have come about without the encouragement of Tiemann and Professor of Natural Resources and the Environment Stuart Grandy. Currently immersed in an independent study on root decomposition with Dr. Grandy, Casazza says, “Stuart takes time out of his busy schedule to give me personalized attention, and has always supported me in furthering myself academically. Both he and Lisa are enthusiastic about my doing my own relevant research.”
Tiemann and Casazza will stay at the Makare Biological Field Station in Uganda from June until August, travelling throughout areas around Kibale National Park to take multiple soil samples and interview people regarding their agricultural practices. Due to limited resources for agricultural land, Ugandans are forced to rely on fertile soil to yield two or three crops a year without the practice of fallowing fields. In addition, chemical fertilizer is unaffordable to most farmers in rural areas that lack the infrastructure for its transport. The researchers will ship soil samples from key areas back to UNH for in-depth analysis in the fall.
Next September, Casazza will rejoin the team at the Grandy Lab to test the samples for various nitrogen and phosphorous levels, microbial biomass, mineralization rates, and more. “One of the best parts of my work is going to a lab meeting and seeing the data I’ve been working on for weeks,” says Casazza. “I can see it all coming together into something relevant, which will – hopefully – have a positive impact on our knowledge and influence agricultural practices.”