Rodrigo Vargas joins CANR faculty

August 29, 2013 under CANR News

Rodrigo Bargas joins CANR facultyIn October of 2012, Rodrigo Vargas joined the community of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) as an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

Since joining UD, Vargas has successfully secured over $1 million in grants as a principal investigator supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the University of Delaware Research Foundation (UDRF). His research group has active study sites in Baja California, Delaware, and Maryland and collaborates with scientists across the United States, Asia, Europe and Mexico to understand how land ecosystems respond to climate variability, extreme events, and global environmental change.

Working at CANR, he has actively taken on multiple research endeavors. First, supported by a NASA grant, he is testing different approaches to improve a framework for monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) to support implementation of Reduction of Emissions by Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) across a gradient of forests in Mexico. This research involves collaboration with the US Forest Service, the Mexican Forest Service (CONAFOR) and multiple research institutions in Mexico.

Secondly, funded by a USDA grant, he is investigating the effect of extreme climate events on greenhouse gas fluxes in a watershed near UD’s campus by using state-of-the-art instrumentation for continuous measurements of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide fluxes from soils. This research involves collaboration with Shreeram Inamdar, associate professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

Lastly, funded by a UDRF grant, he is looking at the size, age, and use of nonstructural carbon reserves (NSC’s) in long-lived plants in the deserts of Baja California, Mexico.  His results are providing insights about the physiological mechanisms of carbohydrate allocation and long-term plant survival in water-limited ecosystems.

“Several plant species in the central desert of Baja California can live for over 400 years under limited water availability and climate variability including decadal droughts,” said Vargas.

Preliminarily results show that new fine roots of desert palms and cactus are produced using “old” NSC reserves that are more than 20 years old. Vargas’ group has also found that the age of NSC reserves inside the plants can have a mean age of over 60 years.

“This means that these plants can store NSC reserves and keep them for a long time and then use them to produce new structures such as fine roots,” said Vargas.

Vargas said he is extremely lucky to have rapidly found friends among the UD community who support him and have made him feel welcome in Newark. His time here has already afforded him the opportunity to be exposed to and apply an array of various research techniques from multiple disciplines such as computer science, micrometeorology, remote sensing, and soil ecology.

Offering a sincere thanks to all of his new friends here at the CANR, he said “I have found amazing colleagues, leaders, and students across UD, and the working atmosphere is excellent to nourish and develop high quality research.”

As an undergraduate, Vargas studied biology in Mexico at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), one of the largest universities in the world with over 350,000 students. It was there that he began his research career, studying nitrogen fixation of microbial mats in a tropical wetland at the Yucatan Peninsula.

He went on to earn a PhD at the University of California-Riverside where his research focused on how extreme events such as fires and hurricanes influenced carbon dynamics in regenerating forests. Through a combination of biometric forest measurements and experimental forest management techniques, he demonstrated the large capability of these forests to store carbon above and below ground.

Vargas also studied the effects of hurricane disturbance on CO2 fluxes within the soil, finding unprecedented rates of CO2 emissions from soil to atmosphere. Lastly, he demonstrated the unexpected capacity of plants to allocate old stored carbon to produce fine roots following a hurricane disturbance. In light of the east coasts’ late experience with Hurricane Sandy, Vargas’ past work shows the implications these weather phenomena’s have on the fate of stored carbon in plants.

In addition to this work, Vargas also worked on a side-project funded by the National Science Foundation studying belowground carbon dynamics in the San Jacinto Mountains of Southern California. This study allowed him to use a wireless network of soil sensors to measure CO2 fluxes and the relations with fine root dynamics.  “One of the most exciting results is that we demonstrated that fast and continuous fine root measurements (daily and sub-daily) are needed to quantify and understand belowground carbon dynamics,” said Vargas.

Following his PhD, Vargas was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California-Berkeley where he interacted with scientists around the world within FLUXNET, the international consortium of eddy covariance scientists.  “My work focused on regional and global synthesis studies on water and CO2 fluxes of terrestrial ecosystems, combining measurements and ecological process-based models,” said Vargas.

Before arriving at UD, Vargas returned to Mexico to work as an assistant research professor at a national research center in Baja California, Mexico (CICESE). Here he led synthesis studies on ocean-to-atmosphere CO2 fluxes while also continuing measurements of water and CO2 fluxes in a shrub land ecosystem in Baja California. His interest in the effects of land use change on such fluxes also led him to coordinate the consolidation of the Mexican eddy covariance network (MexFlux), where his research group is working on a first generation of nationwide synthesis studies.

Article by Angela Carcione


Department of Plant and Soil Sciences adds Seyfferth to Staff

November 19, 2012 under CANR News

Angelia Seyfferth has joined the faculty in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR).

Seyfferth previously conducted postdoctoral research at Stanford University under the Department of Environmental Earth System Science. She has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Towson University, and received a doctoral degree in soil and water sciences from the University of California, Riverside.

In addition to being an assistant professor in CANR, Seyfferth is also affiliated with the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN), which she says she looks forward to as it will open the door for interdisciplinary research opportunities, especially with regards to environmental issues.

“UD has started a strong focus on environmental issues with the creation of DENIN and the Critical Zone Observatory and it just seems like a really exciting time to be here, to be affiliated with the environmental movement that’s happening on campus,” said Seyfferth.

One of the areas that Seyfferth’s research focuses on is arsenic levels in rice, and she said that interdisciplinary collaboration can help inform this research. “I think you can learn a lot about a particular topic if you’re narrowly focused on it but to solve some of these big issues, you need to think trans-disciplinary. So if you think about the arsenic in rice issue, you have to understand what’s happening in terms of the soil chemistry but also the plant physiology and if you were just closed to one or the other, you may not understand how they interact.”

There is also a social aspect for communities–especially those in South and Southeast Asia–when it comes to rice that Seyfferth said can only be solved through interdisciplinary collaboration.

“Typically natural scientists and social scientists have little interaction.  One of the great things about DENIN is that natural scientists have the opportunity to interact with people on the social side,” said Seyfferth. She explained that in Cambodia, the word for “to eat” is the same as the word for “rice” and having outsiders come in and simply tell the residents to change their practices won’t work without understanding the social science aspect.

“So again, just like not any one scientific discovery is going to fix the problem, it’s not just one field, it’s going to be several different people coming together with different experience and expertise to solve some of these complex environmental issues,” said Seyfferth.

Seyfferth said that her research “focuses on understanding the processes that dictate contaminant and nutrient cycling in the rhizosphere and lead to uptake of contaminants by food crops.” Another part of her research is “looking at ways to minimize the amount of contaminants that are taken up by food crops.”

One such contaminant is arsenic.

As far as arsenic in rice, Seyfferth explained that rice is very susceptible to arsenic because of the way in which it is grown. Most soils contain arsenic, but when arsenic is present in soils that are aerated, the arsenic is bound to the solid soil particles and doesn’t move.

Rice, however, is mostly grown in flooded conditions.

“If a plant is going to take up arsenic, the arsenic needs to be in the soil solution,” said Seyfferth. “The process of flooding a soil sets up a whole different suite of biogeochemical conditions which allow the arsenic to be released from the solid and move into solution where the plant can take it up. So rice tends to accumulate more arsenic than other cereals because it’s mostly grown under flooded conditions.”

When it comes to the risk that arsenic in rice poses to Americans, Seyfferth said that the arsenic toxicity has to do with a variety of factors, among them is the concentration of arsenic in whatever a person may be ingesting, and the amount of tainted food and water ingested.

This is one of the reasons that Americans are at less of a risk than citizens of South and Southeast Asia. For one thing, the water quality standards are safer in the U.S. than they are in, for example, Bangladesh and Cambodia. Also, Americans do not depend on rice in their daily diet as much as those in Southeast Asia, where they eat rice 3 times a day, everyday.

That doesn’t mean that Americans should not be concerned, however. “I think it’s important to be concerned, to be aware of any chemical that you’re being exposed to,” said Seyfferth. “But the amount of rice that we tend to eat, typically in the U.S. is much lower. If we have it a couple times a week, it’s probably not going to have a huge impact.”

Seyfferth also notes that brown rice, while more nutritious than white rice, is also higher in arsenic concentration. “The act of polishing the rice to make it white removes the micronutrients that are located on the outer layer of the grain,” said Seyfferth. “So if you polish it, you’ve removed much of the arsenic but you’ve also removed many of the micronutrients that we actually need.”

Article by Adam Thomas


Amy Shober joins CANR faculty and Cooperative Extension

November 5, 2012 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

After 6 years working and living in Florida, Amy Shober decided that it was time to come back to the mid-Atlantic, so when she saw a job open up at the University of Delaware, she jumped at the opportunity.

Shober now holds a position in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources as an assistant professor for nutrient management and environmental quality, as well as having an appointment as an Extension specialist. She said that returning to UD is like a homecoming for her, as she received her Ph. D from the University in 2006.

“I’m just really excited to be here, happy to be back working in agriculture, and happy to be back in the mid-Atlantic,” said Shober.

Shober is familiar with working in Cooperative Extension, having spent 6 years working as an Extension specialist at the University of Florida. She explained that at Florida, she was “working mostly on urban issues related to soil, water, and nutrient management.”

Shober said that though she enjoyed working in landscape horticulture, she was eager to get back to focusing more on agriculture.

“I had spent 6 years gaining a different perspective in a different kind of setting and in a different university system. I also learned a lot about Extension while I was at Florida. It was quickly clear that Extension was where I wanted to be,” said Shober. She added that when she saw this position open up, she thought that the job was “a perfect fit for me. I was really interested in it and I was excited for the chance to return to Delaware.”

Whereas in Florida she was more involved with helping homeowners, her appointment at UD will have her working more with growers. “My research and Extension programs are really going to be grower driven. As I begin my career at UD, I’ll be meeting growers and talking with them about what their needs are. This will allow me to design my research program so that it meets their needs,” said Shober. “We want to help growers increase their yields and their economic bottom line, but we also want to use nutrients and water efficiently.”

Another thing that excites Shober about her appointment is the chance it presents for collaboration.

“I have the opportunity to collaborate with researchers at Penn State, Virginia Tech, the University of Maryland, West Virginia University and Cornell. It’s a fun group to work with and I knew them when I was at UD as a Ph.D student. It’s nice to be back in that group,” said Shober.

Article by Adam Thomas


Abasht joins the Department of Animal and Food Sciences

February 6, 2012 under CANR News

The Department of Animal and Food Sciences in the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) has added Behnam Abasht to its faculty.

Abasht, assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences, received his bachelor’s degree in animal science from Urmia University and his master’s degree in animal science from the University of Tehran in Iran. He received his doctorate in Quantitative and Molecular Genetics in France from the University of Rennes INRA-Agrocampus in 2006. His travels then took him to Iowa State University where he completed his post-doctoral work before working as a Research Geneticist and Genomics Project Leader at Perdue Farms from 2008 until 2011.

Now, Abasht has brought his expertise in chicken genomics to the College of Agricultural and Natural Resources.

Abasht visited the University of Delaware campus, specifically the Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI), in 2009 and in 2010. He said that these visits left no doubt in his mind that he wanted to join the faculty at the University of Delaware.

“That was truly one of the most pleasant visits that I have had to an academic institution,” said Abasht. “I felt that people were friendly and welcoming and was impressed from the outstanding research programs of the faculties and the commitment of both Animal and Food Sciences and DBI to cutting-edge technologies for research.”

Now that he has been on campus working, nothing has changed. “I believe CANR has a nice ambiance with its energetic and welcoming staff. I enjoy speaking with people at CANR and receive positive energy from them. You just feel that it is a great place to be and to work.”

Abasht said that his research at UD focuses on using an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach that will include collaboration with an international team of scientists to help identify genes that explain the differences on fatness between two lines of chickens, the French Fat and Lean chicken lines.

His research interests extend into the “implementation of genomics technologies in commercial chicken breeding programs” and he is hoping to continue this research at the University of Delaware by collaborating closely with poultry industry members.

Abasht also said that he is looking forward to “building a dynamic lab group to conduct research on integrative avian biology, using systems-based approaches.”

Abasht added, “I had no idea that one day I would be in one of the world’s leading animal science departments developing my research program on studying the genetic basis of phenotypic variation in chickens.”

Article by Adam Thomas


Jeff Buler joins the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology faculty

December 20, 2011 under CANR News

Not many collegiate departments can boast about having a radar ornithologist among its faculty, but with the addition of Jeff Buler, the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources can now claim to have one in its ranks.

After conducting his post-doctoral work the past four years at the University of Delaware, Buler has joined the department faculty with his main area of research in what he terms “radar ornithology.”

“I use weather radar to quantify bird distributions, and to track migratory birds,” Buler said. “Only a handful of people do it, and I’m interested in mapping species distributions with radar and I’m also interested in stopover ecology of migratory birds.”

With regards to the stopover ecology of migratory birds, Buler explained that he is “interested in understanding how they select the habitats where they stop and how that impacts their behavior and the success of their migrations.” He currently has two research projects that will collectively map important stopover areas for birds during their migrations along the entire US Atlantic coast using the national network of weather radars.

Buler’s research has mostly involved the study of songbirds but he has also used radar to map wintering waterfowl distributions in California to assess their response to wetland restoration efforts of Farm Bill conservation programs.

Buler explained that radar data are archived back to the 1990s, which allows him to look at how bird distributions change over the period of time before and after areas are restored. “Waterfowl respond immediately to restoration efforts by using the new wetlands as soon as the former crop fields are flooded.”

Also part of Buler’s research is a project to monitor bird and bat flight activity at the UD wind turbine in Lewes, Del., to assess the turbine’s impact to wildlife in southern Delaware. The project was initiated last spring.

Tracking Buler’s own educational travels, one finds a migratory pattern that started in the mid-Atlantic, then headed south to the Gulf Coast before returning back north and landing at the University of Delaware.

Buler received his bachelor’s degree in biology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, his master’s degree in wildlife at Louisiana State University and his doctorate in biology at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Buler said he is pleased to be working at UD and specifically in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology. “My family is originally from this area so it’s nice for me to be in this area,” said Buler.

Of the department, Buler noted, “I enjoy the department. It’s a very friendly, inviting environment and we all get along very well. So hopefully that is conducive to being a productive environment.”

Buler said his favorite part of becoming a professor has been the ability to mentor students and teach courses. “My position before was purely research so now I’ve got the opportunity to teach undergrads and grad students, and so I’m looking forward to that.” He will be teaching a landscape ecology course in the spring and a wildlife habitat management course in the fall.

Another thing that Buler is excited about is the ability to have graduate students help him conduct research.  He is currently building an “aeroecology” program here at UD for the study of flying animals in the airspace.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Danielle Quigley