NMSU studies treatment, uses for wastewater from oil and gas, fracking

 

Civil engineering Assistant Professor Pei Xu, center, works with graduate students Guanyu Ma, left, and Xuesong Xu in her laboratory. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)
Civil engineering Assistant Professor Pei Xu, center, works with graduate students Guanyu Ma, left, and Xuesong Xu in her laboratory. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

A team of researchers in New Mexico State University’s Department of Civil Engineering, led by Assistant Professor Pei Xu, is working to develop solutions to the problems related to produced water. Fracking flow-back water and produced water are the waste streams generated in oil and gas exploration and production.

“Oil and gas are buried underground and are mixed with water for extraction,” Xu said. “When we get oil and gas out of the ground, we also have the produced water that is the by-product. The quantity of the oil and gas produced water is significant in the United States.”

Produced water management is a significant challenge for the oil and gas industry. Based on a survey conducted by Argonne National Laboratory, approximately 98 percent of produced water generated from onshore production is deep well injected, which is costly for producers and is a waste of water resources, especially since much of the nation’s oil and gas exploration is in arid or semi-arid areas like Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.

Xu’s goal is to find safe, beneficial uses for the produced water. This first requires examining the characteristics of produced water – its varying levels of salinity and both organic and inorganic contaminants – and how to treat the water to remove those contaminants. 

“After we have a very good understanding of the water’s characteristics, then our focus shifts to develop the treatment technologies to treat this water,” Xu said.

Her research team consists of several graduate and Ph.D. students, all studying varying aspects of produced water and water reuse. They currently are doing research with produced water from Permian Basin production operations, though produced water from other areas likely will have different characteristics. 

Xu also collaborates with the oil and gas industry, Lea County, Lea Soil and Water Conservation District, and colleagues Nagamany Nirmalakhandan in civil engineering, and Kenneth Carroll, Oman Holguin and Tanner Schaub from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. 

Xu and her team are using several technologies to treat the water in the lab, including reverse osmosis membrane systems that remove salt from the water, leaving a freshwater stream and a concentrate stream after treatment. The concentrate stream still requires disposal. They also use another membrane system, an electrodialysis system, which uses electrical potential to separate the salt ions from the produced water. The products are fresh, purified, desalted water, but also a concentrate that needs to be disposed of, as with the reverse osmosis system. 

“Even though the desalination technologies are very important to remove the salt so we can use the water, these membranes can be fouled quickly by the produced water because of the particulate, inorganic and organic matter in the water,” Xu said. “In order to protect the membranes, we have to remove these substances from the water so the membranes can be operated for a longer time and more cost effectively.” 

In order to reduce the membrane fouling and scaling, the team is trying to develop these pretreatment technologies. 

“What we do right now is use biological treatment to remove organic contaminants from the water. For example, we use biofilters,” Xu said. “We use activated carbon as the attachment materials for microbes to grow on. The activated carbon can not only support their growth, but also can help biodegrade the organics in produced water by providing longer retention time so that the bacteria can continue to degrade the organics that absorb on the activated carbon.” 

Zach Stoll, civil engineering Ph.D. student in Xu’s lab, and Josue Magana, civil engineering graduate student, are both working on produced water treatment using biological processes. 

“We’re trying to extract the energy from produced water – instead of just using energy to treat it, if we can get energy out and treat it at the same time, then that’s a win-win,” Stoll said. “There’s a big problem with produced water though, because it has organics in it, and it also has high salt. If you try to use some of the conventional processes right now for desalinating the produced water, you kind of clog everything up with the organics. The big challenge for biological treatment is that because the salt is so high, that if you try to treat it biologically, you kill the microbes hat are not used to a highly saline environment. Specialized microbes do exist in nature that can tolerate these high salinities but aren’t normally found in produced water. Our work focuses on trying to acclimate the microbes to highly saline produced water so they remove the organics.” 

Magana is experimenting with microbiological approaches to treat the flow-back water containing the viscous guar gums used as a gelling agent for hydraulic fracking.

“There are different types of guar gums used in the hydraulic fracturing process. What it essentially does is carry the pumping into the hydraulic fractures to maintain the structure of the fracture to extract the oil, petroleum, gases,” Magana said. 

This guar gum-treated water is extremely viscous, so the water becomes more like a semi-solid or gel, which maintains the structure of the fracture. Pumping viscous water, however, is very expensive.

“We’re looking at treating it at the plants to use it as a source of food, so the microbes can maintain their metabolism and degrade all the other organics (in the produced water) that are toxic to humans, and the environment,” Magana said.

The lab has only been fully operational since January, but Xu and her students’ work is already drawing attention.

“If we can beneficially use this water, then this will reduce the cost to producers and this will also augment regional water supplies, which is why produced water research is so important,” Xu said. 

“There are billions of gallons of water used in the hydraulic fracturing process and if we can reclaim or reuse some of this water, using different processes like granulated activated carbon and microbes, we should essentially be able to save some of this water and reuse it, potentially, saving energy and water, which we’re in need of here in the Southwest and in the world,” Magana said.

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/d3iBtm2U0YY.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU undergraduate research, creative arts projects in the spotlight

 

Javier Garcia-Mendoza, a New Mexico State University industrial engineering student, will be one of more than 80 undergraduate students participating in the Undergraduate Research and Creative Arts Symposium on Friday, April 25. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)
Javier Garcia-Mendoza, a New Mexico State University industrial engineering student, will be one of more than 80 undergraduate students participating in the Undergraduate Research and Creative Arts Symposium on Friday, April 25. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

When you think about research in an academic setting, it’s often the purview of faculty members, doctoral candidates or those working toward a master’s degree. But undergraduate students at New Mexico State University are actively involved in top research and creative projects on campus, and they’ll be recognized this week for their efforts.

The Undergraduate Research and Creative Arts Symposium, in its 19th year, will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Friday, April 25, at the Corbett Center Student Union. Since 1996, more than 1,500 students have presented their work at the symposium. Many of the roughly 85 students who will be presenting are completing Honors Thesis projects, while others have worked with mentors in laboratories and other research and arts settings.

Honors College Dean William Eamon said the projects represent a wide variety of disciplines across campus, including science and engineering, the humanities, history, government and many more. The symposium, he said, gives the students the chance to show what they’ve discovered and inspire others to explore their fields.

“Research is about discovery,” Eamon said. “Original research that students do on their own and with a mentor is the kind of work that enables them to really investigate a problem and demonstrate that they’ve mastered the skills and protocols of their chosen fields.”

Industrial engineering student Javier Garcia-Mendoza analyzed red-light violations to determine whether camera monitoring in Las Cruces intersections was changing driver behavior. Garcia-Mendoza worked with faculty mentor Hansuk Sohn and graduate student mentor Alireza Moghimi, both also in industrial engineering, to evaluate the Safe Traffic Operations Program with grant support from the city of Las Cruces.

“I believe that undergraduate research is important, because it involves you more with your faculty,” Garcia-Mendoza said. “My graduate mentor opened my mind to the possibility of searching for paths that are less common for undergraduates.”

Biology student Justin Provo agreed.

“The interaction you get with professors and mentors when you’re doing research is, in my opinion, the most important thing in your undergraduate experience,” said Provo, who worked with faculty mentor Elba Serrano and conducted research at the Indiana University School of Medicine Graduate Division through its Undergraduate Research for Prospective Physician-Scientists program. “Coming out of college with a project like this looks so good to any business or graduate school.”

Provo’s research sought a better understanding of migraine pain pathways.

“We looked at the structure of receptor channels that are involved in migraine pathways that cause pain,” he explained. “We wanted to see how these channels interact and how they function, so that we can find a better, targeted drug to treat the pain associated with migraines.”

Presenting the projects to an audience of peers, family, friends and community members requires a thorough understanding of the results, Provo said, because the people listening might know nothing about the subject matter – or they might know everything.

“It really tests your knowledge of how you know your project and how you know your field,” he said. 

Eamon said the symposium offers a chance for the students to really take ownership of their projects.

“Everything is undergraduate student work, from the research to the design work on the posters, programs and T-shirts,” he said. “It’s an entirely student-driven project.”

The symposium will start with refreshments and opening remarks from NMSU Provost Dan Howard in Corbett Center’s Dona Ana Room, followed by poster sessions in the second floor north lobby area and paper sessions in the Rio Grande, Socorro, New Mexico and Colfax rooms through lunchtime. A luncheon for students in the west ballroom will feature a talk by Sean Rogers, assistant professor of management in the NMSU College of Business, about the implications of paid and unpaid internships for college students.

URCAS is sponsored by the NMSU Honors College, the New Mexico Alliance for Minority Participation, the Minority Access to Research Careers program, the Building Research Achievement in Neuroscience program, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute program, the College Assistance Migrant Program, the Office of the Vice President for Research and the colleges of business, education and engineering.

For more information on the symposium, visit http://honors.nmsu.edu/news/events/urcas, or contact Eamon at[email protected].

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/HQn7r0lbOAA.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

Researchers launch smart grid epicenter at NMSU

 

Enrico Pontelli speaks about his involvement in the iCREDITS research project on smartgrid technology during a resarch rally event at O'Donnell Hall. (Photo by Darren Phillips)
Enrico Pontelli speaks about his involvement in the iCREDITS research project on smartgrid technology during a resarch rally event at O’Donnell Hall. (Photo by Darren Phillips)

Professor Enrico Pontelli has received a $5 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s Center for Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) to launch research that will focus on intelligent technologies for smart grids and develop a broad culture of smart grids at New Mexico State University.

Pontelli and his colleagues were recognized for their efforts at a Research Rally held Friday, April 11, on the NMSU campus. There, Executive Vice President and Provost Dan Howard commended Pontelli for his tenacity and dedication.

“Getting any NSF grant is an achievement,” Howard said. “Workforce development is very important and I see this as a great opportunity for NMSU students.”

A computer science professor and department head in the College of Arts and Sciences, Pontelli is partnering with Satish Ranade, electrical and computer engineering department head, and other colleagues in disciplines across the university to study the development and use of smart grids. Like solar panels, smart grids allow consumers to be producers of energy as well as users. They utilize digital data and communications technology to predict patterns and operate automatically – thus promoting sustainability. 

“Smart grids represent the future of the electrical generation and distribution infrastructure, and present a number of challenges that the research community is trying to address,” Pontelli said, adding that he hopes to create a broad culture of smart grids at NMSU. “Smart grids try to make a directional relationship between power plants and customers by predicting when customers need electricity. If they had that information, production would be more efficient.”

“We want NMSU to become known as a hub of knowledge and we realized if we want to make a difference, we had to have an epicenter of research and training in smart grids. We have a great amount of talent at NMSU that can contribute to advancing the state-of-the-art in smart grid technologies.”

The Interdisciplinary Center of Research Excellence in Design of Intelligent Technologies for Smart Grids (iCREDITS) brings together a coalition of experts in electrical engineering, computer sciences, mathematics, management and education.

Pontelli and Ranade will act as co-directors of the iCREDITS Center, with a faculty steering committee consisting of Sukumar Brahma, electrical engineering; Jay Misra, computer science; William Yeoh, computer science, Huiping Cao, computer science; Son Tran, computer science; and Susan Brown, director of the NMSU STEM outreach center.

The center will focus its efforts on energy, communication, coordination and monitoring. One of its core goals is to increase the number of trained scientists and engineers in smart grid technologies. The staff is in the process of establishing an undergraduate minor and a master’s of science in smart grid technologies. 

The College of Engineering is researching how to best manage, control and protect electricity grids.

“This technology allows you to use what you have smarter,” Ranade explained. “It allows you to design things in a smarter way, and the ultimate promise is whether or not customers wants to do something with the information, it would be nice to know that when they’re using electricity at a premium time and the cost is high.”

Ranade added that in the last six months, companies, including electric co-ops, have already begun to express interest in the research.

The center will also focus on education of K-12 students, including recruitment, training and retention of female and Hispanic students. Brown said the STEM Outreach Center already extends to thousands of students annually and its programs will incorporate this research and create excitement about smart grid technologies.

Pontelli pointed out that it is also imperative to keep those students in Las Cruces and NMSU. 

“We’re ambitious,” he said. “I think this has a lot of potential and could create new job opportunities in the state.”

The team is also creating partnerships at the local, national and international level. 

One of the benefits of smart grids is a decrease in prices, as researchers create a market place that currently doesn’t exist. The U.S. Army, for example, has already begun to develop smart grid prototypes in new military installations.

“They want to be as self sufficient as possible,” said Pontelli, who already has years of experience in intelligent systems. This, however, is his first endeavor in smart grid technology. He hopes NMSU will become an innovator in the smart grid industry and the first institution in the Southwest to offer training programs and a graduate degree track.

“We’re very excited about this grant,” he said. “There are a lot of statistics that show the demand for people with that kind of expertise is very high and going to explode in the next few years. It’s going to be a very marketable skill and we want to help meet that demand with our programs.”

To learn more about the research center, visit http://icredits.nmsu.edu.

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/dHFuKMfcuaI.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU management professor uses embodied storytelling research to help veterans

 

New Mexico State University management professor David Boje is using his research on storytelling to help veterans and their families begin to focus on the future. (NMSU photo by Amanda Bradford)
New Mexico State University management professor David Boje is using his research on storytelling to help veterans and their families begin to focus on the future. (NMSU photo by Amanda Bradford)

From his own military service in Vietnam, David Boje knows that it can be difficult – sometimes impossible – for veterans and their families to return to life as they knew it before a combat deployment. The consequences of combat service can include strained relationships with family, divorce, stress disorders, inability to get and keep a job, homelessness – even suicide.

A management professor in New Mexico State University’s College of Business, Boje is a specialist in storytelling as it applies to organizations, leadership and ethics. He holds the college’s Wells Fargo Professorship and is a distinguished achievement professor and a fellow of the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative.

Two of Boje’s current projects are focused on using his research on storytelling – specifically an approach called embodied restorying process – to help veterans and their families begin to find empowerment, reflect on their lives and focus on the future.

Boje, along with a team that includes his wife, Grace Ann Rosile, an associate professor in management; Jeanne Flora, an associate professor of interpersonal communication; Kenneth Hacker, department head for communication studies; Elizabeth EnglandKennedy, a college assistant professor in public health studies; and Jim Kroger, an associate professor of psychology, is working with veterans who are transitioning out of homelessness at the Community of Hope in Las Cruces.

The storytelling healing class involves “sand play” – the veterans are given a bin with play sand and an assortment of toys and figurines. These figures include toy soldiers, people, animals, cars, dinosaurs and other items. The veterans are encouraged to pick out some figures that represent their deployment and put them into the sand box. These might reflect their time before, during or after their deployment.

“We worked out this process using the sand play to help them gently ‘story’ their situation without going into a lot of detail,” Boje explained. “They just put the images out there, and then we talk about them. I might ask, ‘What does this roadrunner represent?’ and hear ‘That represents me running away from my relationships.’”

In one example Boje described, he worked with a man who, on his first pass at his story, had no sense of a future. The man saw that some of the others in the group talked about wanting to have a relationship or find a wife. Seeing that, he pulled out some characters that represent possibilities for his own family someday. The participants are encouraged to “restory” their bins several times, each time with a different focus – perhaps emphasizing people who have been helpful to them, or things that they want in their lives.

“What you’re doing is, you’re looking at future possibilities instead of a path that stalls at their trauma or stalls in the present,” Boje said. “We want to show that it’s possible to help people deal with stress through storytelling, without getting into their traumatic events.”

In another application of the restorying technique, Boje and Rosile are working with NMSU student veterans and their families. The families spend time working with the couple’s horses before a session of the sand play restorying.

“We teach them to do simple things with the horse – petting the horse, currying the horse – and then to sense the horse’s reaction,” Boje said. “We find that if we have them do that kind of work with the horses first, and then come in and do this storytelling with me and my colleagues, what will happen is they’re a lot more relaxed, they’re a lot more willing to sit back and reflect on their life.”

Jacobo Varela, director of Military and Veterans Programs at NMSU, said he and his staff have walked through the program to get a sense of what it can provide. 

“It’s almost like a meditation, because you’re focusing on the horses, and they help open up communication,” Varela said. “The sand play can be especially helpful for families because it opens doors of communication that family members might not be expressing verbally.”

He said this type of exercise can be very beneficial, especially to those veterans and their families who are reluctant to seek help adjusting to life after deployment.

Equine-assisted therapy has long been used to promote well-being, particularly in people with anxiety, depression, autism, mental or behavioral health problems and developmental delays. Horses are extremely sensitive to the body language of humans and respond with consistent feedback, which can be useful in a therapeutic setting.

Boje prefers to avoid terms like “therapy,” “stress disorder” or “homelessness” in dealing with any of these veterans and their families. Labels, and the stigma that often accompanies them, are counterproductive when trying to change their attitudes about themselves and their futures, he said.

“They get to let down their guard and just focus on the skill of storytelling or the skill of working with horses,” Boje said. “They can re-enter their life with a little more empowered story. You can’t give someone empowerment – empowerment comes from the self – but you can facilitate a process where they can undertake empowerment themselves and they have agency for their own life course, without a label.”

For veterans who avoid seeking help because they don’t want to be stigmatized, this is a way to open lines of communication softly, Varela said.

“The people who need it the most are the least likely to ask for help,” he said. “The better the support system a veteran has on the home front, the more successful they can be in school and life.”

Boje said those men and women who are reluctant to seek help are his main targets with these projects.

“It’s not how they characterize themselves as a warrior, as a soldier, as a hero – so they’re not going to seek therapy,” he said. “They’re going to tough it out, suck it up and move on with their life. There are risks in that – risks of destroying their family life, losing the careers they’re trying to protect, or messing up their education.”

For more information about the restorying projects, or to learn more about participating in the research project, contact Boje at [email protected] or visit his website, peaceaware.com.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU developing food supplement to improve cattle digestive system

 

New Mexico State University beef cattle nutritionist Eric Scholljegerdes is conducting research on an amino acid feed supplement for pregnant cows to see if it improves the digestive system of their offspring. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)
New Mexico State University beef cattle nutritionist Eric Scholljegerdes is conducting research on an amino acid feed supplement for pregnant cows to see if it improves the digestive system of their offspring. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

During drought, having cattle that can tolerate poor nutritional forage is the difference between a cow and calf operation going under, or staying in business.

Pregnant cows have a harder time during drought because they are eating for two. If they are not able to consume and digest the required nutrients during pregnancy, calf development can be negatively influenced, which in turn has an impact on the dollars in the cattle producer’s bank account.

To help the cows’ digestive systems to be more efficient in harvesting nutrients from poor-quality forage, New Mexico State University Assistant Professor Eric Scholljegerdes is developing an amino acid feed supplement and studying the influence it has on fetal programming.

“This particular amino acid has been shown to stimulate blood flow by increasing the number and size of blood vessels going to the placenta,” said Scholljegerdes, beef cattle nutritionist. He is conducting research on cattle at NMSU’s Corona Range and Livestock Research Center. 

“This increase in blood flow should stimulate the overall nutrients supplied to the fetus. By giving the amino acid supplement to the cow 40 days into gestation when fetal organs are developing, in particular the digestive tract and associated organs, it should help the digestive system function better after birth.”

The first generation of calves, born during the fall of 2013, is currently being monitored to assess the impact of this feeding program. 

“One of the first questions we hoped to answer is how it was going to influence the birth weight. The answer is that the offspring of the amino acid supplemented cows did not have higher birth weights, and that is important to cattle producers,” he said. “We are now conducting performance tests on the calves to determine if their digestive system is more efficient than the control group of the mothers who did not receive the amino acid.”

A second part of the study is looking at the impact of the amino acid feed supplement administered 200 days into gestation, during the last trimester of the pregnancy.

“During the third trimester, the calf is pretty well developed and it is growing,” Scholljegerdes said. “However, our thought is that if we can improve blood flow to particular tissues, we could see an improvement in meat quality.”

“Overall, we hope that we can improve females’ longevity by enhancing the digestive system,” Scholljegerdes said. “So when the cow is pregnant and we are in a drought, we are hopeful that through this feeding program she will be able to tolerate poor forage and extract the nutrients she needs for her developing fetus.”

The downside to this work, he said, is that during the early period of gestation when this program may have the greatest impact, grass is starting to grow and is typically of high quality. Many cattle producers do not want to supplement cows because quality of the grass is sufficient to meet their needs. 

“I don’t disagree with that at all, but if we can come up with a 30-day nutrient supplement program that’s going to stimulate the calf’s future abilities to thrive, then I would argue the ends may justify the means,” Scholljegerdes said. 

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

Declining bee population attracts research at NMSU’s Los Lunas Ag Center

 

Tessa Grasswitz, entomologist, and David R. Dreesen, agronomist and horticulturist, both researchers at NMSU’s Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center and the USDA-NRCS Los Lunas Plant Materials Center, work together on the New Mexico Pollinator Project, which aims to conserve bees in New Mexico and educate people about the benefits of pollinators. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)
Tessa Grasswitz, entomologist, and David R. Dreesen, agronomist and horticulturist, both researchers at NMSU’s Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center and the USDA-NRCS Los Lunas Plant Materials Center, work together on the New Mexico Pollinator Project, which aims to conserve bees in New Mexico and educate people about the benefits of pollinators. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)

Two researchers at New Mexico State University’s Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas have been working together on the New Mexico Pollinator Project, which aims to test native and non-native plants for their ability to attract and retain pollinators at a time when some pollinator populations are under threat.

The pollinator project began in 2010 as a collaborative effort between NMSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Services Los Lunas Plant Materials Program in response to concerns over what is known as Colony Collapse Disorder – a problem that threatens honeybee populations, resulting in economic implications for commercial beekeeping and pollination operations across the nation. 

According to the USDA’s statistics, the commercial honeybee population has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today. In the U.S., “bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year,” as stated on the USDA’s website. The problems caused by CCD are so drastic that last month the USDA allocated $8 million to help farmers in five states improve habitat for honeybees. 

USDA is researching pathogens, pesticides, parasites and other environmental stressors that contribute to CCD. 

Recent efforts to help the deteriorating populations of pollinators in the country include the memorandum from President Barack Obama on June 20 to establish the Pollinator Task Force, which will develop a strategy to study the health of pollinators, develop affordable and appropriate seed mixes and establish a public education plan, among other steps, to help in the restoration of pollinators. 

“Colony Collapse Disorder is specific to domesticated honeybees, and is especially important in states such as California, which have vast acreages of almond trees and other crops that require insect pollination,” said Tessa Grasswitz, entomologist working on the pollinator project at NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas. “In other parts of the country where Colony Collapse Disorder has really affected the honeybees and where they have done the research, they’ve found that in all cases the native bees can pick up the slack as far as plant pollination as long as there is habitat for them once the crops have finished blooming.” 

The two Los Lunas-based researchers recognize the seriousness of this issue and its implications for agricultural industries in New Mexico, where important crops such as chile and various fruits might be affected by the lack of pollinators.
To help farmers and others interested in creating a more stable habitat for the state’s pollinators, they have published a list of both native and non-native plants that provide pollen and nectar for native bees, honeybees and other beneficial insects such as predatory and parasitic wasps. 

Another objective of the pollinator project is to educate people about the importance of pollinators as well as the plant species that attract and help them thrive in New Mexico’s climate. 

“I have realized the great diversity of native bees we have here, and how that they can be as important as honeybees for the pollination of certain crops and native plants,” said David R. Dreesen, agronomist and horticulturist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service at the USDA-NRCS Los Lunas Plant Materials Center, located at the same facility as NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas. 

Dreesen and Grasswitz have evaluated over 500 species of plants, including annuals, herbaceous, perennials and woody shrubs, and encourage people to plant native, recommended species to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. 

“We have tried a wide diversity of plant species starting from the Southwest, but also from the Pacific Northwest and California, and it is surprising how many of them will do well in our climate and soils,” Dreesen said. 

Grasswitz added that pollinator habitat “needs to provide blooming plants from early spring into summer and on into autumn.” 

In addition to the plantings at Los Lunas, in 2010, limited plantings were installed at a rural high school at Reserve, New Mexico, and at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area near Belen, New Mexico. A grant obtained in 2011 allowed three more pollinator plantings to be installed at NMSU’s Farmington and Tucumcari agricultural science centers, as well as at a demonstration farm for beginning farmers in Chaparral, New Mexico. 

“I have been surprised at the extent to which bees will make use of these kinds of plantings, even in a relatively short time frame,” said Grasswitz. “Year on year, we have seen an increase in the diversity of pollinators at our plot here in Los Lunas, although this could be partly due to the lack of wildflowers in the surrounding rangelands because of the drought.” 

Grasswitz added that it is important to remember that bees are part of the larger food chain and are needed for a healthy environment.

“Their decline can have major effects not only on agriculture, but also on natural habitats,” she said.

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/ZrW0N90HA14.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU professor uses a community garden project to eliminate stigmas of mental health

 

Through a community garden project in Vado, N. M., Maria Gurrola, associate professor in the School of Social Work at New Mexico State University, worked with adults and adolescents to erase stigmas about mental health. (NMSU photo by Tiffany Acosta)
Through a community garden project in Vado, N. M., Maria Gurrola, associate professor in the School of Social Work at New Mexico State University, worked with adults and adolescents to erase stigmas about mental health. (NMSU photo by Tiffany Acosta)

Mental health is an important issue that often isn’t discussed openly especially in Hispanic communities, and New Mexico State University Social Work Associate Professor Maria Gurrola is working on ways to change stigmas on the issue.

In spring 2014, Gurrola partnered with a community organization, Del Cerro Nuevos Horizontes, in Vado, New Mexico, to build a community garden and to research mental health issues in the region, which the College of Health and Social Services funded. 

“The main emphasis of the community garden is to have communication between the adults and the adolescents that live in the community,” Gurrola said. 

The community garden was a way for adolescents and adults, including the elderly in the community, to work together to enhance the area, while Gurrola led conversations about mental health issues. The adolescents group consisted of 12-year olds to 18-year olds and the adults ranged in age from 30s to 94. 

“My main emphasis within the project is mental health and how the communication between the adults and the adolescents has a lot to do in how we view mental health,” she said. “Most of it is the stigma of mental health and how often times we know someone is different and has problems, but we don’t try to work with them to see what we can do about it. Instead of trying to help, we hide it.”

In Vado, N.M., a community garden project allowed Maria Gurrola, associate professor in the School of Social Work at New Mexico State University, to discuss mental health issues with adults and adolescents in the region. (NMSU photo by Tiffany Acosta)
In Vado, N.M., a community garden project allowed Maria Gurrola, associate professor in the School of Social Work at New Mexico State University, to discuss mental health issues with adults and adolescents in the region. (NMSU photo by Tiffany Acosta)

The group started working the land of a donated lot in early January. The adolescents met on Wednesdays after school and on Saturday mornings. Typically, Gurrola would talk with the adolescents, then the adults and then together as one group. 

“The literature tells us that there is a lot of need on the stigma of mental health, particularly in minorities and more in the Hispanic communities, because they don’t look for services,” she said. 

Gurrola said she believes education is the best way to change the stigma about mental health issues. 

“One of the things is, it has to be more open,” she said. “There is treatment. There is nothing wrong with it. A lot of the education that is being posted right now states that it’s like any other disease. It’s like having diabetes or having high blood pressure.”

At the community garden, the first three months included time spent clearing trash, rocks and dirt to prepare the ground for planting. In addition to the manual labor aspect, the group would take time to talk about issues such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and substance abuse.

The community transformed the garden and reused items such as old tires for pots. 

“We planted corn, beans, cucumber, tomatoes,” Gurrola said. “We’ve replanted some of the cactus that was there. We also put cilantro, pumpkins, watermelons and other flowers in between the area.”

After the planting was complete in April, the group continued to meet for maintenance to water and weed the area. These meetings gave Gurrola the opportunity to discuss how the adolescents see mental health. 

“We already know from the literature about substance abuse in adolescents and how prevention can be very helpful. Most important is the services that are provided in rural environments,” she said. “We know in New Mexico that there are not a lot of services in the colonias.”

The adolescents told Gurrola that they were aware of services available in Las Cruces, but the need for services closer to home is very important. 

Gurrola said discussions about how mental health and substance abuse can be related also occurred, and she believes that awareness and acceptance for mental health is critical to changing the stigma about the issue. 

“They shouldn’t be ashamed if they have ADHD or if they have depression or if they have any other mental illness or it’s within their family.

“The community gardens were made as a place to meet and talk about mental health,” Gurrola said. “Mental health is a big issue in our community and often times we don’t have a lot of services and funds to be able to provide what the community needs.”

Gurrola said she plans to develop manuscripts on the project and publish her findings in journals.

For more information on the community garden project, contact America Terrazas at [email protected]

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/V7BSik4KVag.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

Secrets in the soil: NMSU scientists research desert’s tadpole shrimp

 

Triops occupy a petri dish for NMSU student Rebekah Horn to collect data. (NMSU photo provided by Rebekah Horn)
Triops occupy a petri dish for NMSU student Rebekah Horn to collect data. (NMSU photo provided by Rebekah Horn)

“You look at the soil and you don’t see anything, but you put it in water and it comes to life,” said David Cowley, associate professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology at New Mexico State University.

Researching a unique crustacean with a fossil record dating to more than 250 million years ago, the tadpole shrimp, Cowley and Ph.D. student Rebekah Horn are uncovering new discoveries about the genetic composition and how these invertebrates reproduce. 

“The goal is to learn about the ecology and how many species there are in the area,” Cowley said. “For evolutionary biologists it’s a real oddity. How does a species persist so long in time and not change substantially? It’s gone through major climate change, glaciation, etcetera, but the species persists!”

The tadpole shrimp colonizes freshwater temporary ponds, such as dry lakes and vernal pools, throughout the Southwest. Females lay eggs that can survive in the sand or dried mud, dormant for several years. When placed in water the eggs hatch over a period of time and the cycle begins again.

“Each pond or playa we have in the desert represents a different population. It’s interesting to me that we have all these ponds relatively close together, yet they’re all so different genetically – however the species themselves look similar,” Horn said. 

Funding for the project came from the Rio Grande Basin Initiative in conjunction with Texas A&M University. A pilot grant from the National Center for Genome Resources in Santa Fe was awarded to Cowley and Horn for their specific work in genome sequencing.

“For the last 20 years people who did research on triops (one genus of tadpole shrimp) agree that there seems to be three reproductive systems,” Cowley said. “One is purely female, one with 30 percent ‘males’ – but we’ve never proven that they’re really males – and one has about 50 percent of both.” 

Looking at the pouch of embryos located on the extension on the 11th leg of the mother, Horn observes and compares the genetic profile to each of her offspring and samples them using mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. Determining the sequence of the mitochondrial genome, which is 15,000 letters long, will aid in her analysis. This method helps Horn in determining the reproductive system being used by the tadpole shrimp. 

Part of Horn’s thesis was recently accepted by the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One, of the Public Library of Science. 

The information on the reproduction of the Triops will be vital to the ecologists involved with crustaceans and evolutionary ecologists, as there is no existing data on how this species reproduces. 

With continued research, Cowley and Horn intend to discern if water chemistry contributes to gene expression among the Triops species.

Watch this video on YouTube at http://bit.ly/XDnDll.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU researcher’s carbon sequestration work highlighted in ‘The Soil Will Save Us’

 

NMSU scientist David C. Johnson stands in a field at Leyendecker Plant Science Center with a cutting from a sesbania plant grown on his compost system. Johnson's compost work suggests that the solution to global warming lies in the soil. (Courtesy photo)
NMSU scientist David C. Johnson stands in a field at Leyendecker Plant Science Center with a cutting from a sesbania plant grown on his compost system. Johnson’s compost work suggests that the solution to global warming lies in the soil. (Courtesy photo)

A New Mexico State University scientist’s work in carbon sequestration is turning heads – not just here in New Mexico, but also in Austria and Australia. His work suggests a potential solution for dealing with the carbon dioxide-related problems that seem to be causing global warming.

There are nearly seven billion people on Earth with a collective carbon footprint from energy usage of more than 30.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. If reducing this footprint will return the planet to more moderate climatic conditions, experts say we need a safe and inexpensive system to efficiently capture carbon dioxide from ambient air and safely store it, with few negative impacts on the economy or environment and no long-term liabilities for storage.

David C. Johnson, NMSU research scientist and molecular biologist at WERC, a consortium for environmental education and technology development housed in the College of Engineering, does research for the Institute of Sustainable Agricultural Research at NMSU.

Johnson’s research in carbon capture and storage in agricultural soils was recently highlighted in a book called “The Soil Will Save Us,” by Kristin Ohlson. 

NMSU scientist David C. Johnson stands in a field at Leyendecker Plant Science Center where he is doing research on changing soil microbial community structures. Johnson's compost work suggests that the solution to global warming lies in the soil. (Courtesy photo)
NMSU scientist David C. Johnson stands in a field at Leyendecker Plant Science Center where he is doing research on changing soil microbial community structures. Johnson’s compost work suggests that the solution to global warming lies in the soil. (Courtesy photo)


“We have plenty of issues in both our climate and in agriculture,” Johnson said. “What this research pursued is how to best capture that CO2 and get it back in the soil, while also improving our agricultural systems. It turns out that our farmers are ‘the key’ to successfully reducing greenhouse gases within a sustainable agricultural system.”

The work started in 2004 when Johnson had a project with the United States Department of Agriculture, trying to solve the problem of what to do with cow manure from dairy cows. The USDA wanted a product that would sell and also would be good for agriculture, so Johnson developed a composting process that basically reduced the salinity of the manure, but also created a compost that yielded a reduced salinity that was good for the soil, but most importantly, it contained a diverse microbial community structure. 

 

NMSU scientist David C. Johnson holds soil improved by agricultural management approaches to produce higher soil fungal community populations. Johnson's compost work suggests that the solution to global warming lies in the soil. (Courtesy photo)
NMSU scientist David C. Johnson holds soil improved by agricultural management approaches to produce higher soil fungal community populations. Johnson’s compost work suggests that the solution to global warming lies in the soil. (Courtesy photo)

“Most composting is done in windrows, turning it each day or every other day, which disrupts fungal growth,” Johnson said. “The process we developed was a no-turn process, so you didn’t disrupt the fungal community, allowing it to thrive. What we noticed while growing plants in this compost is what focused us onto how to change soil, and how to move the soil microbial population from a bacterial to fungal-dominated community.”

Johnson had a microbial community structure analysis done on the compost. There were microbes first discovered in different places around the world, in the Arctic and Antarctic, along with pelagic bacteria from the ocean, and there were intestinal bacteria, as well. This diversity of microbes ended up in a compost that used only materials originating from the Las Cruces area.

What is it that makes Johnson’s compost so unique?

“It’s not so much making the compost, but it was the change in plant growth we observed when we shifted the soil microbial community structure, moving it from bacterial-dominated to fungal,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re now trying to do in agriculture – trying to shift the microbial community structure in soils.”

This isn’t accomplished by applying compost, as that is not practical for the large acreages agricultural producers manage. Instead, the Institute of Sustainable Agricultural Research is trying to implement this change by growing it into the soil. 

“This is basically how soils evolve – different plants will come in and grow, and they’ll have a certain influence on that soil, as far as being able to increase the carbon content. That seems to be the key here,” Johnson said. “The carbon plants capture using the CO2 in the atmosphere is an energy substrate. Soil organisms, like our society, depend on energy. As you add more energy into the system, you increase population density. A little more energy, you change the population structure, diversity develops and you begin to get specializations. When you achieve sufficient energy resources, you start to notice mutualisms between plants and soil microbes.”

Studies at the Institute of Sustainable Agricultural Research indicate increased soil organic matter in agricultural ecosystems promotes improved plant growth, soil water-holding capacity, increased macro- and micro-nutrient availability, reduced system energy requirements and reduced land preparation and cultivation costs. 

“Soils with higher carbon content and larger fungal populations enabled us to double the production in the soil with the same amount of water,” Johnson said. “Once you improve your soils to the point they have a higher carbon content and a better soil microbial structure, then, if you can grow twice the amount of food on half the amount of land, you can reduce the amount of land you farm, and in doing this, you can cut your water usage. Agriculture currently uses about 80 percent of our freshwater resources.”

Managing soil in this manner, many of the decisions are made for you, as the microbes and the plants have worked together for 5.5 million years and have developed a biological barter system, trading nutrients for energy. Johnson says we can develop these systems in agricultural soils, however, many traditional agricultural management processes block them, or stop them, or remove a key player in the process. 

“I’m trying to bring all the players back in and let them do what they do best for capturing carbon and improving soil fertility. This will have such an impact on agriculture as far as being able to grow plants better, with less input, less water and cutting back on the downstream pollution we see from all of the fertilizers we apply to the soils,” Johnson said. “It will change the way we approach agriculture. And, my waste product from reducing atmospheric CO2 concentrations is food. Can you beat that?”

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/7Q0z890zT9I.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU biology professor helps students discover their potential

 

New Mexico State University biology professor Elba Serrano. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)
New Mexico State University biology professor Elba Serrano. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

After 22 years at New Mexico State University, Regents Professor Elba Serrano’s philosophy about student success remains rooted in the beliefs that have nurtured her own career.

“People emphasize a lot the need to encourage, but I think the lack of discouragement may be as important as encouragement,” said Serrano. “Then, the child can follow his or her own interests without being told ‘don’t go there.’”

The daughter of a U.S. Army sergeant, Serrano grew up on military bases all over the world, where her interest in science was allowed to blossom.

“I think when I look back on it, I was the beneficiary of Department of Defense schools,” she said. “These were positive environments for young students. I received a great education and was not discouraged from pursuing my interest in math and science.” 

Serrano, whose biomedical research focuses on neural regeneration, sensory disorders of hearing and balance and nanobiotechnology, was on sabbatical in spring 2014 as a visiting professor at the University of California, San Diego Center for Research in Biological Systems.

During two decades, Serrano’s values and work ethic have impacted the lives of thousands of NMSU students. She identifies with many who, like Serrano, were the first in their family to graduate from college. The NMSU biology professor has taught more than 2,500 students and mentored student research for more than 100 individuals in her lab. Moreover, she has reached out to hundreds more at the university as the principal investigator of programs such as the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and BP-ENDURE Building Research Achievement in Neuroscience (BRAiN).

“We know there are great inequities in participation,” Serrano said. “So at NMSU, I’ve been very involved since I arrived with programs that broaden participation for students – women, minorities, for everyone. I think to really transform a culture, everyone needs to be part of it. I am excited to use this latest version of the RISE grant to institutionalize and bring many opportunities to all NMSU students.”

Marti Morales, a former student who is now an assistant professor of biology at Adrian College, met Serrano at a conference.

“I had heard about her from other colleagues. She was able to look into me and see there was potential and I had an opportunity to come in and work with her,” Morales said. “Not only did I get to participate in RISE, but also in her neurobiology lab. Without RISE and Dr. Serrano, I would not be where I am now.”

At a recent 20-year reunion of her lab that coincided with the retirement of Casilda Trujillo-Provencio, who managed Serrano’s lab for those years, about 30 former students came together. Serrano was gratified to hear about their accomplishments.

“My students are now faculty, physicians, veterinarians, they’re engineers, they have started businesses,” Serrano said. “I can’t take credit for it. I feel my job as a professor is to inform, to provide some structure, to show some potential paths, but they have to do the walking themselves and they’ve clearly done it very well.”

Serrano has modeled the kind of career many of her students hope to achieve. She has brought in more than $15 million in external research funding to the university, serves on national advisory boards and has received numerous honors and awards. A recipient of the NMSU Roush Award for Teaching Excellence, she was recently elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

“My advice is not ‘do this’ or ‘do that’; I don’t give that kind of advice. I ask the question you’re not thinking of, and when you answer that question you’ll know for yourself what to do,” she said. “Even decades later they still contact me for advice about a career decision or situation they are in. We’re forging lifelong relationships.”

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/SjIY_UKDjgg.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.