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Posts tagged ‘funding’

Improving Drought Tolerance in Soybean

Limited water availability is a significant issue threatening the agricultural productivity of soybean, reducing yields by as much as 40 percent. Due to climate change, varieties with improved drought tolerance are needed, but phenotyping drought tolerance in the field is challenging, mainly because field drought conditions are unpredictable both spatially and temporally.  This has led to the genetic mechanisms governing drought tolerance traits to be poorly understood. Researcher Clinton Steketee at the University of Georgia is trying to improve soybean drought tolerance by using improved screening techniques for drought tolerance traits, identifying new drought tolerant soybean germplasm, and clarifying which genomic regions are responsible for traits that help soybeans cope with water deficit.

Seedlings sprouting

Researchers are trying to improve soybean drought tolerance by using better screening techniques for drought tolerance traits.

Which Traits Are Important?

Clinton and his colleagues are evaluating a genetically diverse panel of 211 soybean lines in two different states, Kansas and Georgia, for over two years to help him accomplish his research objectives. These 211 lines come from 30 countries and were selected from geographical areas with low annual precipitation and newly developed soybean lines with enhanced drought-related traits, along with drought susceptible checks. The researchers are looking at traits such as canopy wilting.  Some plants will take a few days longer to wilt, allowing these plants to continue their photosynthetic ability to produce biomass for seed production. Other traits that he is interested in evaluating are stomatal conductance, canopy temperature with thermal imaging, relative water content, and carbon isotope discrimination.

Beans growing on a stalk

The scientists want to monitor traits such as canopy wilting.

Use of Microclimate Stations to Monitor Environmental Conditions

Clinton says to make selection of drought-tolerant lines easier and more predictable, knowledge of field environmental conditions is critical. He says, “You can phenotype all you want, but you need the true phenotype of the plant to be observed under real drought conditions so you can discover the genes for drought tolerance and improve resistance down the line in a breeding program.”

In addition to soil moisture sensors, the team used microclimate weather stations to help monitor water inputs at their two field research sites and determine ideal time periods for phenotyping drought-related traits.  Steketee says, “We put microenvironment monitors in the field next to where we were growing our experimental materials.  Both locations use those monitors to keep an eye on weather conditions throughout the growing season, measuring temperature, humidity, and precipitation. Since we could access the data remotely, we used that information to help us determine when it was time to go out to the field and look at the plots. We wanted to see big differences between soybean plants if possible, especially in drought conditions. By monitoring the conditions we could just go back to our weather data to show we didn’t get rain for 3 weeks before we took this measurement, proving that we were actually experiencing drought conditions.”


The team identified some lines that performed well.

Results So Far

Though 2015 wasn’t a great year for drought in Georgia, Clinton says there was a period in late July when he was able to measure canopy wilting, and they identified some lines that performed well.  He says, “We compared our data to the data collected by our collaborator in Kansas, and there are a few lines that did well in both locations.  Hopefully, another year of data will confirm that these plants have advantageous drought tolerance traits, and we’ll be able to probe the advantageous traits out of those lines and integrate them into our breeding program.”

Future Plans

The team will use what’s called a genome-wide association study approach to identify genomic regions responsible for drought tolerance traits of interest. This approach uses phenotypic information collected from the field experiments along with DNA markers throughout the soybean genome to see if that marker is associated with the trait they are interested in.  If the scientists find the spot in the genome that is associated with the desired trait, they will then develop genomic tools to be used for selection, integrate that trait into elite germplasm, and ultimately improve the drought tolerance of soybeans.

See weather sensor performance data for the ATMOS 41 weather station.

Explore which weather station is right for you.

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Crowdsource Your Data Collection?

What can you do when you need data from all over the world in a short amount of time?  Many scientists, including ones at JPL/NASA, are crowdsourcing their data collection.

Close up of microbes

Projects range from ground truthing NASA satellite data, to spotting migration patterns, to collecting microbes.

Darlene Cavalier, Professor of Practice at Arizona State University is the founder of SciStarter, a website where scientists make data collection requests to a community of volunteers who are interested in collecting and analyzing data for scientific research.

Who Collects the Data?

SciStarter was an outgrowth of Cavalier’s University of Pennsylvania graduate school project where she sought to connect people who didn’t have formal science degrees with scientists who needed their help.  She says, “We know from various National Science Foundation reports that many people without science degrees are interested in participating in and learning about science. The challenge was that there was no easy way to find those opportunities.”

Image of a purple Orchid

One project invites UK citizens to find and take pictures of orchids.

Cavalier started SciStarter, in part, to create a “one-stop shop” resource where people could easily search and find projects best suited to their locations and interests.  She says, “We have over 1,600 projects and events.  Projects range from ground truthing NASA satellite data, to spotting migration patterns, to collecting microbes.”  One project, sponsored by the National History Museum in London, invites UK citizens to find and take pictures of orchids with their smartphones, so scientists can study the effect of climate change on UK flowering times.

How Are Volunteers Recruited?

Volunteers are recruited through SciStarter’s partnerships with the National Science Teachers Association, Discover Magazine, the United Nations, PBS and more. One of the most visible ways that volunteers are enlisted is through an organization Cavalier started called Science Cheerleader.  The organization consists of 300 current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders who are scientists and engineers.  These role models visit youth sports groups, go to science festivals, and talk in schools.  During their appearances they engage people of all ages in actual citizen science projects. Darlene says, “This is our way of casting a wide net and making new audiences aware of these opportunities.”

Researcher taking samples

Science cheerleader consists of 300 current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders who are now scientists and engineers.

What’s the Ultimate Goal?

Cavalier is determined to create pathways between citizen science and citizen science policy. She says, “The hope is after people engage in citizen science projects, they will want to participate in deliberations around related science policy. Or perhaps policy decision makers will want to be part of the discovery process by contributing or analyzing scientific data.”  Darlene has partnered with Arizona State University and other organizers to form a very active network called Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST).  This group seeks to unite citizens, scientific experts, and government decision makers in discussions evaluating science policy. Cavaliers says, “The process allows us to discover ethical and societal issues that may not come up if there were only scientists and policy makers in a room.  It’s a network which allows us to take these conversations out of Washington D.C.  The conversations may originate and ultimately circle back there, but the actual public deliberations are held across the country, so we get a cross-section of input from different Americans.” ECAST has been contracted by NASA, NOAA, the Department of Energy, and others to explore specific policy questions that would benefit from the public’s input.

Image of the capital building

ECAST is a network which allows us to take science policy conversations out of Washington D.C.

Overcoming Obstacles

Cavalier says the SciStarter team constantly works to remove challenges and impediments to public participation. She explains, “We’ve found it can be difficult to articulate the geographic bounds of a project because when a researcher says, “this project can be done in a watershed,” it doesn’t mean anything to most people.  So SciStarter spent time developing a system of “Open Streetmap and USGS databases that show land-type coverage.”

Another obstacle to some types of research is access to instrumentation.  Darlene comments, “The NASA Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) project really opened our eyes to how many obstacles can exist between the spectrum of recruiting, training, equipping, and fully engaging a participant.”  This year, SciStarter is building a database of citizen science tools and instruments and will begin to create the digital infrastructure to map tools to people and projects through a “Build, Borrow, Buy” function on project pages.

Image of the world from a satellite view

“The NASA Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) project really opened our eyes to how many obstacles can exist to full engagement.”

What’s Next?

Darlene says that sometimes scientists who want accurate data without knowing about or identifying a particular sensor for participants to use often create room for data errors.   To address this problem, SciStarter and Arizona State University will be hosting a summit this fall where scientists, citizen scientists, and commercial developers of instrumentation will meet to determine if it’s possible to fill gaps to develop and scale access to inexpensive, modular instruments that could be used in different types of research.  You can learn more about crowdsourcing your data collection with SciStarter here.

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Reforestation Challenges Around the World

In the conclusion of our three part series on the reforestation of Banguet province in the Philippines, we asked Dr. Anthony S. Davis, Tom Alberg and Judi Beck Chair in Natural Resources at the University of Idaho, Loreca Stauber, one of the visionaries behind the project, and Kea Woodruff, former U of I Nursery Production and Logistics Associate, now at Harvard University, to explain some challenges associated with teaching reforestation to different cultures.

Ground view of a forest of bamboo looking up

Even with increased environmental awareness, we’re still losing almost thirty million acres of forest globally every year.

What are some of the cultural challenges?

Anthony: As I spend more and more time looking at international forests, I realize that we’re losing forests at a phenomenal rate. Even with all of our awareness about where we get supplies, where trees come from, where wood comes from, and where paper comes from, we’re still losing almost thirty million acres of forest globally every year. That’s terrifying to me. What’s even worse is that most of it comes from countries that don’t have environmental controls.  They don’t have systems in place that keep them from cutting down all the trees. Often, when we cut trees down for forestry, we replant. But, when you start to work in countries where that’s not valued or not part of the culture or the system, then a huge problem emerges.

How do you teach people to grow trees that can survive in their native terrain?

Anthony: There isn’t a lot of knowledge globally about how to grow high-quality tree seedlings. I’ve gotten really interested in the question of how to take a tree seedling which is grown in a nursery, where it essentially has all of the water and all of the nutrients it could possibly ask for, and get it into a condition where it’s likely to survive somewhere extremely harsh: with limited nutrients and water.  How do you get it to the point where it’s able to overcome those challenges?

There are two ways to look at that. One is to get more water to that seedling after it’s planted. The other is to make sure that the seedling you’re planting has its best possible chance of developing a root system that can access water that might not normally be available in those six inches where healthy roots are located when it’s first planted. Based on work that’s be done here at the University of Idaho in graduate student projects over the years, we found that if you can grow a seedling in a healthy manner in the nursery, it’s more likely to grow roots or access water that previously they might not have been able to access.

Researcher works on one of the water tanks that will supply water to the Benguet nursery in the Philippines

Working on one of the water tanks that will supply water to the Benguet nursery in the Philippines. The project is proceeding nicely after a series of setbacks: a destructive typhoon, slides that had to be cleared, 2 deaths, 1 funeral, and electrical power interruptions.

What challenges the plants after they leave the nursery?

Anthony: If that seedling can get roots down and access water, it starts to grow.  The beauty of reforestation, in general, is that it’s very simple; it can be very easy to get trees to grow. However, what often happens is you have a social element that overlaps the biological element. Some of it could be a lack of education, where people don’t understand that a large amount of foliage or leaves on a tree means that you need more water. You think about that image of success: people want to plant the biggest tree possible. That might work in a yard, but it really doesn’t work in a reforestation situation.

What are the challenges of establishing a nursery in a place like the Philippines?

Kea: In the place like the Philippines where resources aren’t necessarily as available, it becomes a huge challenge just finding the right kind of media or container. Also, there’s a decentralization of the knowledge resource itself. While we were there, we had the opportunity to meet with different government agencies, and there are definitely people who know a lot about the species that are available and how to grow them, but in terms of that information being disseminated and widely available to the public, that’s a challenge. The techniques that will be needed to actually produce a seedling resource need to be addressed.  

Loreca:  The basic thing is a good nursery. That has been a problem. In the past, the government, in an effort to green the Philippines, has given seedlings, but oftentimes, these seedlings are so poor in quality that they don’t survive in out planting.

Coffee beans thriving in the tropical Philippines

Coffee beans will thrive in the tropical Philippines.

How can you help other cultures to succeed at reforestation?

Anthony: During some work I was doing in the Middle East, in Lebanon, we found that communicating to people what a high-quality seedling became really important. You teach them about quality, defining it in terms of how much water a plant needs to survive, or how a plant has to grow in order to colonize a site.  We had a lot of success with the project there, getting people to understand that there was a problem in only looking at above ground information in terms of what makes a high-quality seedling. Really, when the roots are what’s driving survival, they’re looking at the wrong part of the picture.

How do you teach people to think beyond the nursery?

Anthony: Our work in Lebanon coincided with a project in Haiti. In Haiti, we had a former student who had been here at the University of Idaho who asked for help starting a nursery. These same conversations occurred: what is a healthy seedling, what is likely to survive, where do you get your seed, how long do you grow it for, when do you plant it?  We were able to have conversations around all of the elements that go into growing trees.

I remember clearly the “aha” moment where this young woman said, “We’ve been doing it wrong! We’ve always focused on growing as many seedlings as possible, and we haven’t worried about quality.”

See it live

Watch a video where Anthony talks about his work.


You can learn more about the reforestation programs that the University of Idaho nursery is involved with here.

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Philippines Part 2: Overcoming Native Challenges with Remote Data

In one of the first agroforestry efforts in mountainous terrain, Moscow, Idaho community leader Loreca Stauber, Dr. Anthony S. Davis, Tom Alberg and Judi Beck Chair in Natural Resources at the University of Idaho, and their partners have initiated a program where U of I students travel overseas to work with farmers of Banguet province in the Philippines to develop the skills needed to grow high quality tree seedlings.  Local vegetable farmers have historically terraced the mountains that have been forested so they could grow monoculture crops, causing serious erosion (read about it here).  The land has degraded so much that the Philippine government has stepped in: warning farmers to begin conservation techniques, or they will take away the land and manage it themselves.

People building a local nursery in Benguet

Building a local nursery in Benguet.

Inspiring Students to Look at the Big Picture

One of the steps in helping local farmers to solve this problem is to create a local nursery where they can start growing native plants and trees.  Fortunately, the University of Idaho has operated a tree nursery for over one hundred years, and they understand how to grow trees. Dr. Davis specializes in setting up native nurseries for growing native plants all over the world. He says, “I want our students to be exposed to this because we’re graduating students who should be problem solvers, who should be able to look at the biggest challenges and contribute their own ideas towards resolving those challenges.”

Loreca Stauber adds, “We are part of the world and the world is part of us. The students can do more than just get their degree and find a job. Anthony and Kea, when they do this, inspire students to look at a bigger world than they are currently living in.”

Training Students to Understand Native Terrain and Resources

Davis says a good plan needs to take local conditions into account:  “The principles of growing trees are actually universal. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Haiti, Lebanon, Idaho, or in the Philippines. Those principles are the same and they’re readily transferable. It’s how you adapt them to unique local situations that makes a difference.”

Close up on bamboo stalks

“It’s not really about the best way to grow a plant in a greenhouse environment; It’s about the best way to grow a plant that will also survive on its outplanting site.”

Kea Woodruff, former U of I Nursery Production and Logistics Associate, now at Harvard University, says they train the students who go overseas on the “target plant” concept:  designing a growing regime based on what the plant is going to need in its future home. She says, “It’s not really about the best way to grow a plant in a greenhouse environment; It’s about the best way to grow a plant that will also survive on its outplanting site. Determining what the outplanting site is and what each species will need to survive on that outplanting site is what determines greenhouse operations.”

Dr. Davis says you need to consider native resources when doing these types of projects.  “There could be plumbing there, but there’s no guarantee that when you turn the system on, the tap water will come out. That depends on the seasonality of the rains. It’s part of why we wanted the project partners (the farmers) to have data loggers: so we could look at the data together and get a better feel for when water is most abundant and when it’s most scarce, so it can be stored for later use.”

Overcoming Native Challenges with Remote Data

Decagon (now METER) donated data loggers to the program so that Dr. Davis and other people on the team could look at data with the farmers in the Philippines and advise them when to irrigate.  Davis says, “One of the things that’s most important in trying to set up a very remote nursery and manage the production in that nursery from approximately four flights, twelve hours, and twelve time zones away, is knowing what’s going on. There are things that are really easy to ask, like could you send me a picture every Wednesday and Saturday of the nursery, or could you measure the height and the diameter of the seedlings? What’s much harder to tell is how much water is coming in, or what the temperature was during the day or night, because those require people to be monitoring things at a greater frequency than is often possible. If we know how much water is coming into the nursery from rainfall, we can build collection systems so that we can manage where that water goes later on.”

Managing data for both the short and long term is critical, says Davis, because it’s often whether there was rainfall in the predicted amount, and at the right time, that determines whether a seedling establishes or not.

Next week:  The conclusion of our three part series: an interview with Dr. Davis and Kea Woodruff, discussing the cultural challenges of reforestation in different countries.

Acknowledgements:  The SEAGAA agroforestry project in Benguet is agro and forest; the farmers received a grant from the Rufford Foundation based in the UK to build a greenhouse and much of the water catchment system and auxiliary structure that go with a nursery facility.  They also received a sizable grant from the Philippine government to launch mushroom growing as a necessary complement to help support long-term agroforestry. The project is beyond reforestation – it is the growing of trees, shrubs, ground cover, the restoring of watersheds, creating livelihoods, the rebuilding of soil fertility and integrity, the revival of springs which have vanished with the removal of perennial flora, and the restoring biodiversity to bring back the natural checks and balances of a natural ecosystem.

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Scientists and Greenhouse Growers Collaborate to Help the Environment

Bodies of water across the world face extreme pressure from non-point source pollution.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of this problem, but it didn’t daunt Dr. John Lea-Cox, Research and Extension Specialist for horticulture at University of Maryland.  Dr. Lea-Cox was acutely aware that agriculturally applied fertilizers threatened serious harm to the Chesapeake Bay area near his home. Using an early version of METER’s water content sensors, he began to put together a system that could monitor water status in nursery operations. The effort was based on the work of Dr. Andrew Ristvey (now a colleague at Maryland) who showed water savings of more than 50% during his PhD work using TDR sensors in pots growing ornamental plants.  Dr. Lea-Cox and his colleagues wanted to ultimately develop a network of soil moisture and environmental sensors that would help greenhouse and nursery growers know when to turn on and off their water. Their goal was to reduce nutrient and water use through more efficient application.

Close up of a yellow flower with red tipped petals

How did Dr. John Lea-Cox, Research and Extension Specialist for horticulture at University of Maryland, convince nursery growers to reduce water and fertilizer use?

Convincing Growers

One hurdle facing Dr.Lea-Cox was that water savings didn’t resonate with all growers.  But he soon realized that better irrigation control influenced things growers did care about: higher quality crops, lower mortality rate, and less spending on pesticides.  Dr. Lea-Cox discovered that when he showed growers their moisture sensor data, they were hooked. One snapdragon grower, who found that he could use the sensors to produce a more lucrative A grade crop, said he would not like to go back to the days before sensors. “My gosh, it would be like going back ten years. It would be like trying to measure the temperature in a room without a thermometer. We are totally dependent on them.”

Pink orchids growing in a nursery super green nursery

Orchids grown in a nursery.

Finding Collaborators

Dr. Lea-Cox was not only good at convincing growers, but scientific collaborators as well.  Building on this team’s initial findings, he organized a project to develop water retention curves to tie the amount of water in pots to what was actually available to the plant for several different mixes of potting soil. He realized that moisture measurements were practically useless to growers without a mechanism for viewing them all in one place, so he began to look for collaborators who could build an integrated, wireless system to get root zone information to the nursery grower’s computer and allow them to set irrigation limits and automate their systems based on soil and weather data.  

The resulting collaboration was a group of diverse scientists and commercial growers who could study root behavior, plant-environmental interactions, the performance of the plants, and individual grower interaction with the system.  After a few years of testing, the group received $5M in funding from the Specialty Crops Research Initiative (SCRI) Program over five years to improve horticulture for ornamental plants grown in the U.S.

Lauren Crawford, METER’s soils product manager, says that the resulting collaboration was unique. “It was amazing that an instrumentation company, a research group, and commercial growers were able to work so well together. It was because of the trust we had for each other. We were very transparent about what we were doing, even when we knew that transparency would be difficult. The result was that we were able to make tremendous progress in both science and technology.”

Watch two virtual seminars highlighting SCRI research given by scientists Marc Van Iersel and John Lea-Cox.

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4 Funding Tips from an Experienced Grant Writer

Dr. Richard Gill developed an interest in ecology as a child while exploring the forests and seashores of Washington State. This attraction to wild places motivated Dr. Gill to study Conservation Biology as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University and to receive a PhD in Ecology from Colorado State University.

Dr. Richard Gill

Dr. Richard Gill, ecologist at BYU

His PhD research on plant-soil interactions in dryland ecosystems, supervised by Indy Burke, dovetailed well with his postdoctoral research on plant physiological ecology with Rob Jackson at Duke University. Dr. Gill returned home to Washington in his first faculty position at Washington State University. There he pursued research on global change ecology, studying the impacts of changes in atmospheric CO2, temperature, and drought. In 2008 he joined the faculty of Brigham Young University as an associate professor of biology. He teaches Conservation Biology courses and in the general and honors education curriculum.

Dr. Gill has been successful in obtaining funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Dept of Energy, and the U.S. Department of the Interior.  He also helped guide one of his graduate students in winning research instrumentation from the Grant Harris Fellowship, provided by METER.  We interviewed him about his thoughts on successful grant writing.  Here’s what he had to say:

  1. Understand the call: I think it’s important to understand what’s being asked of you and write to the call for proposals itself.  We all have ideas, and we think everybody should give us money for every idea that we have.  That’s part of being a scientist, but understanding the parameters and the purpose of the grant is crucial.  This is because the easiest way to eliminate proposals is to cull those that don’t address the call.  In this way, proposal readers go from a stack of 200 to a stack of 50, without having to get into the details of the research at all.  So my advice is to read the call for proposals, and make sure you actually address what they ask for and stick to the requirements for length and format.
  2. Be true to the vision: There is always some sort of vision tied to the call, so make sure you are true to that vision.  For example, let’s say it’s the Grant Harris Fellowship, which provides instrumentation for early career students to do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.  Make sure you say, “Here’s what I’m already doing with the funding and instrumentation that we have in our lab.  There’s a key component missing, and I can only do it if you support me.”  Show a clear need, aligning your research with the purpose of the proposal, and you’ll have a strong case for funding.
  3. Make sure you edit: Many proposals don’t get funded because of poor writing.  Your great ideas can’t come forward if the reader is mired down in your verbiage.  Don’t send them your first draft.  Make sure you have somebody read it for clarity.
  4. Be clear and concise: When scientists are involved in a project, it is common to develop a sort of tunnel vision, a byproduct of having worked on the project for years and being familiar with all the details.  When you write a proposal you should remember that the person who is reading is going to be intelligent, but have no idea what you’ve been doing.  You should say, “Here’s what I’m going to study, why I’m going to study it, and how I’m going to test it.”  Be clear, specific, and declarative.

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The Spirit of the Grant Harris Fellowship

The Grant Harris Fellowship was conceived in 2009 by  METER‘s (formerly Decagon Devices) marketing group as an opportunity for METER to give back to the science community.  The idea was to create a partnership between METER and researchers so that we could provide instrumentation and be a kind of “scientific friend” to graduate students: giving them experience crafting a proposal, reviewing their ideas, offering feedback, and encouraging those projects that seemed the most promising and exciting to us as scientists.

Grant Harris fellowship

Grant Harris standing in the doorway of METER’s first office in 1987.

When we thought about this opportunity we wondered…who would we name this fellowship after? It was an easy decision when we realized that the principles upon which METER is based come from academia through our founder, retired soil science professor Gaylon Campbell and his father-in-law, Grant Harris, who was a professor and department head of Rangeland Ecology at Washington State University.

Grant Harris fellowship

He lived in a tiny outpost of a house, taking care of sheep-grazing rangeland in a high alpine meadow area, far removed from civilization.

Grant Harris started his career at the beginning of the depression, so when he got married he quickly needed to find a way to support his growing family.  At that time in history, there was not as much college funding or support.  Instead of having the opportunity to attend graduate school, Dr. Harris was forced to start work immediately after obtaining his B.S. for the U.S. Forest Service, managing rangeland in Montana. He lived in a tiny outpost of a house, taking care of sheep-grazing rangeland in a high alpine meadow area, far removed from civilization.

“Scientific Instrumentation has made a lot of progress since I was first exposed to research, working at the Desert Range Experiment Station in 1935 as an undergraduate at Utah State University.  Back then research was 3 parts wits, 6 parts labor, and 1 part instrumentation. I still remember in 1939 measuring the absorption of water into the soil profile using old whisky bottles and corks.

It is amazing to see the time and labor saving devices now available.  We are proud of Decagon’s heritage in producing instrumentation for soil physics.” – Grant Harris

It was only later, after five years of service in the U.S. Navy during WWII, that he finally got the chance to further his education. He returned to school to earn an M.S. and a PhD, and because of his difficult path in obtaining those degrees, he placed a high value on education and an even greater value on the providing of opportunities for research.

Grant Harris fellowship

He placed a high value on education and an even greater value on the providing of opportunities for research.

During his career, Dr. Harris was able to reach out and touch the lives of many students, not only in the U.S. but from all over the world.  He spent time in other countries researching and helping to provide basic science to people throughout his career as a rangeland ecologist.  The Grant Harris Fellowship provides that same learning opportunity for graduate students today where, in the spirit of this legacy that Grant Harris provided, we continue his passion for encouraging research in a direction that will help us understand more about the natural environment.

Colin Campbell, Decagon’s VP of Research and Development commented on the “Spirit of Grant Harris,” during a recent interview.  “As we thought about this opportunity to give back to the research community, we thought of my grandpa, who had a great passion for providing people the chance to learn and grow through the beauty of science.  Thus the objective of the Harris Fellowship is to provide student researchers additional opportunities to dream up new ways of doing things that are going to be successful and also to provide support to those researchers so they can accomplish their goals.”

Click here to learn more about how to apply for the annual Grant Harris Fellowship

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Do Funding Agencies Favor Collaboration?

It’s an interesting question, and certainly one scientists need to think about. In a recent conversation a science colleague said, “I think in science right now, all the funding agencies are recognizing that to answer the problems that matter, you need to bring in people from different disciplines and even industry. If you look at the major funding focus of the National Science Foundation, when they consider bio-complexity, they’re not looking for a group of people with the same perspective. Science questions are becoming more complex, so you need to get input from people with varied backgrounds.”


R.J. Cook Agronomy Farm at WSU (

Examples of this are two projects that METER has collaborated on recently: the Specialty Crops Research Initiative – Managing Irrigation and Nutrients via Distributed Sensing (SCRI- MINDS) and the WSU Cook Farm project, both of which were able to get funding based in part on the use of METER’s technology, and both had a high-level of multidisciplinary involvement.

We got involved in the Cook Farm Project seven years ago because another scientist and I had an idea that fit in the context of a hot topic of the time which was to create a wireless sensor network that was densely populated in a relatively small area.  We did this because at that time, scientists were recognizing that many of the processes they were interested in were occurring when they were not out in the field measuring. In order to understand these processes, we needed in situ measurements collected continuously over a long period of time.

What we were trying to do is show that you could create a wireless sensor network in a star pattern, where you have a central point collecting data from a host of nodes surrounding it.  Our questions were:  can we create a sustainable star network in the field to get consistent and continuous measurements over several seasons, while densely populating the study area with sensors? The measurement network that we designed allowed us to investigate how topography, slope, and aspect interact to determine the hydrology of the soil in this intensely managed agronomic field.

Decagon collaborated with scientists at Washington State University, working with twelve sites across a 37-hectare field.  We installed five ECH2O-TE (now 5TE) sensors at 30, 60, 90, 120, and 150 cm below the soil surface.


Wheat field

What we learned was that when wheat plants grow, their roots follow the water down a lot deeper than you might imagine.  We observed considerable water loss even 150 cm below the soil surface. Data on soil water potential suggested that, as water was depleted to the point where it was not easily extractable, plant roots at a given level would move deeper into the soil where water was more easily accessible. Soil morphology also came into play as hardpans occurred at several measurement locations and water uptake from layers above and below them showed amazing differences.

It was a really exciting thing scientifically, but also technologically.  We learned that the star network was easily possible.  It ran autonomously and was very successful, in spite of the fact that the cell phone we used to get the data back to the office never worked very well.

So it was the science question and the technology question together that was able to secure the funding.  With those twelve sites WSU was able to secure a grant from the USDA for 4.2 million dollars and the research is still ongoing today.  In fact, recently Cook Farm was established as one of the National long-term agroecosystem research sites (LTAR) which will help continue this kind of research well into the future.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

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