Sustaining the Sahel: CFAES students gain international research experience (and more) in Senegal

senegal 1CFAES graduate and undergraduate students have been part of a research project in Senegal since summer 2013, sponsored by the National Science Foundation Division of Biology within the Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) project. (Pictured left to right are Matthew Bright, Spencer Debenport and Chelsea DeLay.)

Richard Dick, professor of soil microbial ecology in the School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR) 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 involves 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 rhizospheres 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, and increasing drought tolerance and resistance to diseases.

“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,” Dr. Dick said. “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 Ohio State 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.

senegal 2Matthew Bright (pictured kneeling, with Spencer Debenport) is a second-year doctoral student in SENR specializing in soil science, advised by Dr. Dick.

Matthew 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; 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 reflected 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,” he said. “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 said, “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.”

senegal 3Spencer Debenport (pictured holding a millet plant, with Matthew Bright and local farmers) is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Plant Pathology. His adviser is 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 senegalensis.

“Once identified, we can use information about the ecology of those organisms to improve this intercropping system in Senegal,” Spencer said.

Reflecting on his time so far in Senegal, he noted that although there are challenges to doing research in Senegal, there are rewards that would not be possible if he was doing the research in the U.S.

“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.”

senegal 4

Chelsea DeLay (pictured in the Laboratory of Tropical Microbial Ecology of the Institut
 Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles, Dakar, Senegal) is a soil science research associate in SENR 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 nitrogen (N) fixation by harboring microorganisms that can take atmospheric N and incorporate it into soils.

“Most of our samples come from farmers’ fields in various villages throughout Senegal, where we are always welcomed with open arms,” she said. “At the end of our sampling day, we are usually invited to eat and drink tea with the village chief.”

She reflected on the impact of the project, noting, “After spending so much time in the villages, I am much more aware of the positive impact this project can have for the Senegalese people, and I am very excited to see how our results can be implemented in the field.”

She also reflected 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. 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, she said, “There has not been one moment I regret coming here.”

The project brings together French, African and U.S. institutions for the first time and includes Ohio State University (lead), the University of California at Merced; Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio; Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles, Senegal; IRD, Montpellier, France; Laboratory of Tropical Microbial Ecology, Senegal; and the 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 five-year $2.6 million project. Dr. Dick is the project’s director. Co-investigators are Brian McSpadden Gardener, Department of Plant Pathology, Ohio State; John Reeve, Department of Microbiology, Ohio State; and Teamrat Ghezzehei, University of California at Merced. Additional components are a study on the hydrology of these shrub intercrop systems and a major educational effort that includes undergraduate internships in Senegal and two advanced training courses for early career scientists (U.S. 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.

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