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Hog Farm, Sunshine, and Lots of Ammonium

Do you like being surrounded by trees in the middle of the woods? Do you like working in an environment where all you can hear is the leaves rustling when there’s a wind? Do you like walking past a family of Diamondbacks relaxing in a pool of wastewater on a daily basis? If you do, I have a job suggestion for you that meets all your criteria.

This summer, I was fortunate enough to receive funding the CNR Enrichment Fund Program to conduct a research based study on the role of forests in intercepting and mitigating atmospheric ammonia! It might not sound that exciting, but if you were in my shoes, you would understand the thrill of getting your hands dirty in the field. To my surprise, the analytical portion of my internship was even more interesting than the field work!

My project required me to start from the very beginning of any project- research. With extensive hours of research, my partner and I had to devise a sampling plan that would allow us to collect ammonium and nitrogen isotope samples from the trees in a specified site of interest. We wished to observe the concentration of ammonium and N-15 isotopes in Loblolly Pine trees in an area that was susceptible to large concentrations of atmospheric ammonia. The goal of the research project was to find out if vegetation such as trees act as fences that intercept atmospheric ammonium. Hence, we chose a Hog Farm. Let me give you a word of advice for your future projects: try and select work locations that do not smell like hog excretions. You will eventually lose your olfactory receptors doing so. Although the smell was moderately bearable, that did not diminish our excitement to conduct our research. As much as one might find staring at a screen boring, research in my opinion is equally as interactive as field work is. It is as important, if not more important, than field work. Working underneath people with extensive expertise in your field of research was another experience altogether. The vast knowledge you can harness through just being around experts with years of experience is infinite. They taught me concepts I never knew existed, from figuring out which direction the wind travels from a wind rose, to how to freeze dry pine needles for analysis needs.

There was one specific time during my research I remember when my team partner and I had to improvise on the field. Field work doesn’t always go as planned; our branch cutting extension pole broke which rendered us unable to deploy the samples. We had to make a call at the project site whether we should return home and prepare for a second trip, or try and finesse the situation. Finally, we got the pole extension to work within limited height and finished our passive sampler deployment. I learned the importance of thinking on your feet as a skill that everyone has to learn at some point, to be efficient, and valued amongst other competition. At the current moment, we are focusing on the analysis of our concentration results, trying to observe a pattern or correlation between distance from ammonium source (hog farm lagoon) and ammonium/N-15 concentrations of trees. We also plan on having a phase 3 sampling with the equipment we have remaining. That’s the brilliant thing about research, it never stops.