Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Research and Communications with Dr. Natalie Nelson

One of this summer’s highlights at UF-ABE was celebrating the successful PhD defense of graduate student Natalie Nelson. An NSF Graduate Research Fellow, a U.S. Presidential Management Fellows Program finalist, Dr. Nelson’s accolades go on and on. But we at IrriGator know her as an enthusiastic collaborator whose blog contributions were always illuminating, audience favorites. Before moving on to the next stage in her research career, Dr. Nelson agreed to share some insight about her work, interests, and future endeavors.

Dr. Natalie Nelson of NC State BAE
What was the focus of your graduate studies?
NN: At ABE my studies focused on hydrologic sciences, but then my research was really focused on specifically water quality and more specifically cyanobacteria and phytoplankton in freshwater and brackish systems – using data analytics and models to study long-term monitoring data sets that exist from a few different systems in Florida to try and infer what types of patterns we could detect between these different types of phytoplankton (such as cyanobacteria) and environmental conditions.

Did you always know you were going to pursue a STEM career?
NN: Yes. In high school I remember giving a presentation in my English class explaining that I wanted to be a marine biologist. I’m not sure exactly why I transitioned away from that but I decided that I was really interested in engineering and the applied sciences. It’s kind of interesting to see how things have evolved, where now I’m obviously not a marine biologist but I’ve incorporated some of those interests by focusing on phytoplankton in these estuarine systems but with more of an engineering perspective. I didn’t know that this is where I would end up, but I always was really interested in math and science and I definitely knew I’d be in a STEM field.

You’ve been one of our more popular guest authors on IrriGator, contributing some of the most viewed entries on the blog in 2016. Do you have any tips for graduate students on perfecting writing/ communication skills?
NN: Everything with communication, it takes practice and there are a lot of opportunities that are really easy to access - in terms of different opportunities to present your work in all sorts of different media, whether it be social media or different presentations. There are all these opportunities, but you have to take advantage of them. No one is going to force you into it.
Ultimately, the way in which I’ve been trying to develop my communication skills is just by prioritizing communication and trying to pursue these different opportunities as they arise. So take advantage of opportunities! Don’t let them pass you by. Especially because it does take time so you have to prioritize it. It’s very easy to prioritize research over everything.

You’re active on Twitter. Can you talk about how maintaining this digital presence has been useful to you?
NN: I have learned a lot about various research activities through Twitter that I would not have discovered otherwise. If you’re rather selective in who you choose to follow you can really gain a tremendous amount of information about different initiatives that are being created. Just the other day I learned about this great collaborative research institute that’s being created. It’s right up my alley, so I get to have easy and quick access to this developing group.
In terms of presenting myself and showing some of what I’ve been doing, it’s really easy and very effective. For example, when I posted about the article that I had published in January/February a friend who I know just personally and through courses saw that tweet and then went and looked at the paper and discovered that the method I use was really relevant to what he was working on. Then a bunch of conversations started from there and we’ve been collaborating a bit on a project he’s currently working on. Twitter allows for you to communicate with people quickly and easily who you might not necessarily discuss research with. It has been really practical.

Can you tell us about your new position at North Carolina State University?
NN: I’ve been hired as an assistant professor at NC State to work primarily in research and also in teaching in the area of data analytics and integrated modeling, but as applied to questions that fall within the scope of biological and agricultural engineering. This would span from bio processing to agricultural systems analysis, but then also some of what I’ve done in the past such as water quality evaluations and ecological evaluations. The scope is really broad. The idea with this position is to bring in someone who can work across disciplines within biological and agricultural engineering through the use of a common set of tools such as data analytics and some of these machine learning tools I’ve been using.
In addition, I will also be pursuing projects related to various aspects of estuarine ecology, but from an engineering perspective – looking at how different global and local modes of change might impact estuaries and what does that mean for the people that rely on estuaries.

I’ll be looking for students starting in 2018 so anyone who’s interested in a funded PhD or Masters should contact me!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Spokane Report Back: ASABE AIM 2017

Last month I attended ASABE’s Annual International Meeting in Spokane, WA. Along with hundreds of students, researchers, and experts, I had the opportunity to catch up with colleagues from around the country and see some of the latest research in ag & bio engineering topics.

ABE and the Future
One of the themes of AIM was what role engineers might play in ensuring a sustainable future for an ever-expanding population and its food, water and energy requirements. World Food Prize Foundation President, and keynote speaker, Dr. Kenneth M. Quinn addressed the concern at length. 
And later a distinguished panel on Opportunities in the Food/Water/Energy Nexus got into specifics about research, policy and collaboration. 
There were hundreds of additional presentations at AIM. Peruse the library of technical papers presented at AIM here.

Accolades for UF
UF ABE was a presence at both the student awards breakfast and the awards luncheon at AIM. Dr. Michael Dukes was formally inducted as an ASABE Fellow. In addition, Dr. Kati Migliaccio was named the G.B. Gunlogson Countryside Engineering Award recipient for 2017. 
Among the students, Biomass Conversion PhD candidate Joe Sagues took first place in the Boyd-Scott Graduate Research Competition. And in the robotics design competition the AggreGators surprised everyone with a 4th place finish among 13 teams.

Stay Tuned
Speaking of robotics, my role at AIM involved both social media and digital media work. Watch for short videos summarizing the student robotics and fountain wars design competitions in the months ahead. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Look at Water in South Central Florida

If you stay abreast of water media you may be familiar with Dr. Mary Lusk from handy insight on reclaimed water in Florida and topical research on septic system pollutants. You may also recognize Dr. Lusk as the UF/IFAS Water Regional Specialized Agent for the South Central District. This spring during the Urban Landscape Summit, Dr. Lusk agreed to speak with IrriGator for our on-going series featuring Water RSAs and their districts.

What drew you to the Water RSA position?
ML: I really like that it combines science with communication to the public. To me Extension is just the perfect job because you’re taking scientific information and you’re conveying that to the public. I love that combination. It’s the best of all worlds to me: science and communication.

What are the critical water issues in the South Central District?
ML: My district is a mixed bag. We definitely have a lot of urban land with the Tampa/St. Pete area, and the Sarasota, Port Charlotte and Naples areas. We also have huge amounts of ag in this district. We have strawberry and vegetable row crops in the Hillsborough County area - all the row crops in the Immokalee area. I really have to wear two hats between the urban and ag world.

If you had to focus on one issue as being most important, it’s probably nutrient storage. We have a lot of water bodies that are impaired because of excess nutrients. What I focus a lot on is ways to get the message out of things we can do to reduce our nutrient footprint, reduce that transport of nutrients from land, whether it’s urban or agricultural, to the water.

Do you consider your first year as an RSA a success?
ML: I feel like this past year has been a success. I’ve seen firsthand the issues. I know who the players are. I’ve met so many people at agencies like DEP, FDACS, the water management districts. I’ve learned who the people are and what they’re working on, what’s important to them and by default learned what’s important to Florida. Now that I have this information I feel that I’m ready to go, ready to start tackling some of those problems.

How do you feel having a digital presence on Twitter benefits you and your work?
ML: I really was looking for ways to just expand my reach, reach those folks that I don’t see face to face, perhaps I’ve never met, but folks who are out there looking for this information. Expand my reach. That to me is great. The more people we can get in touch with, all the better.

Read about Water RSAs Charles Barrett, James Fletcher and Lisa Krimsky.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Next Stop: Spokane, WA

Next week students, researchers and industry members from across the globe will gather in Spokane, WA, for ASABE’s Annual International Meeting. I will be attending as well, once again collaborating with ASABE to bring the digital audience inside the goings-on during the event’s four days. Here’s a preview of some of what will happen next week.

Gainesville Presente
There will be a sizeable UF contingent in Spokane. UF-ABE researchers will be presenting in a host of technical sessions from Monday to Wednesday. Our ABE graduate students are exhibiting work in poster sessions ranging from Natural Resources and Environmental Systems to Machinery Systems. Several will also present in technical sessions, including the imminently graduating Natalie Nelson (PhD) who will also moderate the Leveraging Big Data session. 

How heated was Robotics Design Competition at AIM 2016? Take a look!

The UF-ABE robotics team returns to AIM to put their precision ag skills to the test in the robotics competition. In addition, Dr. Michael Dukes, CLCE Director and UF/IFAS irrigation specialist will be officially inducted as a 2017 ASABE Fellow in Spokane.

One of the more exciting aspects of AIM is the professional development opportunities afforded to students. I’ll be working to showcase as many of those as I can – namely in the design competitions like Fountain Wars, where student teams complete tasks with water and engineering (this year beach balls and eggs are afoot) and Robotics Design, where autonomous robots simulate tasks with props on a board (for 2017, the raspberry farm is where we lay our scene). I’ll also move among the poster and technical sessions to highlight exciting graduate student research.

Tune In
Get an inside look at AIM events with IrriGator and ASABE on Twitter on the #ASABEaim17 tag. And if you’re attending AIM make sure to download the event app (iOs or Android) to keep your schedule organized. See you in Spokane! 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A UF/IFAS Water School Near You

Water Schools are an expanding priority for UF/IFAS. The concept was originally conceived in Polk County in the 90s and then caught on throughout neighboring Southwest FL. Currently there are plans to develop water schools in Marion, Brevard, Citrus and Lake/Sumter Counties. On June 27th the Lake/Sumter Water School is set to debut. Event co-organizer Lloyd Singleton (of Sumter County Extension) recently communicated with IrriGator to offer further insight into the Lake/Sumter County effort.

Lloyd Singleton (left) and Steve Turnipseed inspect a FL native (image FANN)
What do you feel is the most pressing water issue in your area of FL?
LS: Rapid planned residential development in the south part of Lake County (Clermont, Minneola, Groveland) and the north part of Sumter County (The Villages) are increasing the demands for water. Lots of new lawns and landscapes with irrigation, so water quantity is of great concern. Given its namesake, Lake County has water quality concerns for the beautiful chains of lakes in the region.

How often are water schools conducted in your counties?
LS: We conducted a water school for local community leaders last summer (2016), and this is our first one open to the general public. One of the outcomes of that water school, where we used Dr. Borisova’s evaluation, was that they suggested the same information be provided to the general public. So that’s what we decided to do this summer. Some of the information may be over the heads of the general public, but I’m not a big believer in dumbing stuff down. Sometimes you need to challenge critical thinking with a little bit of higher level information. 

We are grateful to our sponsors, the Lake County Soil & Water Conservation District and the Southwest Florida Water Management District for providing the resources to share this event with the general public. If it is well received and the word spreads, I’m confident we can do more.

The water school program includes quite an array of expertise, who is the intended audience?
LS: The program is open to anyone; we are seeing interest from a wide variety of folks, including Master Gardeners, the environmentally-minded, early adopters of all sorts. We’ve assembled experts in numerous fields related to water, ready to share their expertise and answer your questions about this precious, limited natural resource.

There is a water school goodie bag to entice attendees. What kind of useful items are included?
LS: The gift bag itself is a reusable grocery bag in beautiful UF blue, labeled Water School. We will also provide a flash drive with all of the presenter’s presentations included as .pdfs, a personal water bottle, hose end spray nozzle, a fertilizer guide, bookmark, and lots of Florida-Friendly Landscaping information is included, too.

All of the above and information straight from the experts
Co-organized by Juanita Popenoe, PhD., and Lloyd Singleton, the Lake/Sumter County Water School takes place Tuesday, June 27th. Register here.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Just in Time: Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology Releases a Drought Toolkit

Recently the Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology (CLCE) released an information package including some of the best IFAS expertise on water-use in a drought context. With municipalities and water management districts in Central and Southwest Florida declaring Phase III water restrictions, this is timely insight to have on hand. Prior to the info release Center Director Dr. Michael Dukes granted IrriGator a brief interview to discuss the CLCE’s role in drought and easy ways to address water-waste in your irrigation system.

What does CLCE hope to achieve with the release of all this drought relevant information/insight?
MD: We’re really trying to promoting awareness of the drought. It has been ten years since we’ve had a drought here this widespread. There have been many pockets of dryness (South Florida for example) in between. But really to promote awareness and get people thinking about that our water resources are limited.
U.S. Drought Monitor stats for FL as of late May. (via USDM)
What role do you feel IFAS and CLCE can play in this kind of context?
MD: Our role right now is the awareness part. What can you do about it. And if you’re faced with drought what are some of your options. But I think the building of the awareness part is one of the most important parts because every day when we’re not in a drought we’re conducting research and education on best practices, use of smart irrigation technologies, efficient irrigation, Florida-Friendly Landscaping – we’re doing all those things year round. If you do implement these things you’ll be better prepared for a drought.

This season I know many of the water management districts have stepped up their messaging about drought. Are there opportunities for collaboration with these entities?
MD: Short answer is I think so. The longer answer is there is not a formal mechanism for it. We don’t have a regular meeting with all five water management districts. However, we do have informal relationships and once we get our drought information package together St. Johns River Water Management District has asked us for it. We’ll help them by providing the best science that we have.
What are some easy, fast ways to implement best practices to reduce water use in a drought context?
MD: Well, the irony of a drought is you need to water. It’s not the best time to cut your water back. If you have a maintained landscape you’re going to be watering it right now, probably quite a bit. But the practices, the research and education that we conduct all will set you up better for a drought. But it’s stuff you have to do before you get there. Putting in a smart controller right now is probably not going to save any water unless you’re ridiculously overwatering. But from the utility data that we’ve seen people tend to underwater a little bit during this time of year. So people are probably struggling to put enough water on to maintain an aesthetic value of their landscape. The need of the landscapes are very high right now.

The low hanging fruit from an irrigation standpoint, drought or not: adjust the throw on your sprinklers so you’re not watering the road, fix breaks, and check for other obvious issues like clogged heads. The more advanced stuff like smart controllers, they may not save you water right now, certainly rain sensors won’t since it’s not raining. But these things will save you water once we do get to that rainy season.

Dive into the CLCE’s Drought Toolkit here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Making Sense of Landscape Fertilizer Ordinances in Florida

Water quality is a hot topic in Florida. If you follow water media you’ll know that in the wake of 2016’s algal blooms along some of the state’s finest coastlines, putting policy in place to lessen the possibility of future recurrences was a top priority during the Legislative Session. During debates therein everything from Ag, to septic tanks to landscape fertilizer were mentioned as factors contributing to poor water quality. While IFAS research suggests landscape fertilizer does not play as significant a role as its often assigned, the reality is that much of the state has crafted ordinances on when it should/should not be applied (some vigorously contested).

What part of Florida has enacted which landscape fertilizer ordinance? Good question! Enter turfgrass specialist Dr. J. Bryan Unruh. Earlier this year Dr. Unruh tweeted a preview of a mobile website/app he is developing about landscape fertilizer ordinances throughout Florida. IrriGator caught up with Dr. Unruh during the recent Urban Landscape Summit and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about this exciting project.

How did the idea for the fertilizer ordinance app come about?
JBU: Working with the landscape industry in Florida – with now over 100 landscape ordinances, there’s a lot of confusion, especially in the larger urban areas (Orlando and Tampa) where you have multiple counties. So the idea was conceived that if you have a GPS-enabled smart phone you can hit a button and it will tell you exactly what ordinance is in place at that particular point. Nobody has really kept a very accurate compilation of all of these ordinances. My masters student, Christopher Ryan, through some of his work had created ArcGIS maps that show where all these ordinances are. So we’re merging this information into a handy app.
A screenshot preview of app interface (via Dr. Unruh)

Who is the intended audience for this product?
JBU: The primary audience would be the landscape industry. There’s an estimated 70,000 fertilizer applicators out there. Extension faculty as well might find it useful. I don’t presume to think an average homeowner would purchase this app, but they might.

Is this a stand-alone app or is it web-based?
JBU: We’re using app and mobile-website interchangeably. A mobile-website links into the database that is housed on a server. Whereas an app, your updates are tied to app stores. If they don’t push down an update as soon as we would like, then we have a problem.

There is a functional component, too. As we’ve compiled these databases, a lot of it is reactive. You’ll hear about an ordinance and then you have to go vet it out. But with 70,000 landscapers out there, this app has functionality in it where an industry person may hear about something happening in their municipality or their county, they can actually upload information into the tool that then comes back to us and then we can vet for accuracy. They won’t be able to change the database or maps, but they can provide us their ears on the ground.

Will this be a free service?
JBU: The app is a for sale product. You pay a fee for access. We have partial funding from Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology, FNGLA, and internal program funds. It may not have thousands and thousands of users, but I think that those users that do have it will find it to be very helpful.
Detailed ordinance info at your fingertips (via Dr. Unruh)
The Florida Fertilizer Ordinances web app is now available for use on mobile devices. Access it here.