My Internship Experience

Hello Soil Lovers!

My name is Sabrina Kelch and I wanted to tell you guys about my summer research for the this week’s blog post. I studied the effect of gypsum amendment on Illinois agricultural soils through an internship with the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGRREC) this summer. I met the professor I researched with, Dr. Yuji Arai, through one of the fellow members of the Illini Soil Judging Club. He is a professor at the University of Illinois who studies soil chemistry.

One of the most severe issues facing water quality in the world today is nutrient pollution from agricultural fertilization. In this process, also called eutrophication, nutrients which are added to fields during fertilization are leached from the fields through subsurface tile drains and surface runoff into surround water bodies. These nutrients stimulate phytoplankton to grow creating algal blooms. One these algal blooms consume the nutrients, they die and decompose. This process of decomposition takes oxygen out of the water and making the area uninhabitatable for fish and other aquatic organisms who need certain oxygen levels in the water to live. One example of this which everyone is most likely familiar with is the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone. Many of nutrients which causes this hypoxic area in the Gulf of Mexico are brought from Midwestern commercial agriculture fertilization in the Mississippi River. Illinois is one of the largest contributors of these nutrients to the Mississippi River, so I decided to study specifically Illinois soils for my research topic in the NGRREC internship. Gypsum is CaSO or calcium sulfate. Through reviewing literature I discovered that gypsum is an industrial by-product often used to improve soil structure and has been found to be effective in reducing phosphorus leaching. We believed that if gypsum was tested and found to be effective in Illinois high phosphorus soils then it could be important for reducing the amount of phosphorus entering the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. I created a map showing all the 8 hydrologic unit code watersheds or (HUC8) watersheds in Illinois and then color coded the map by phosphorus level. In doing this I found that phosphorus concentration from agricultural inputs was highest in central Illinois. After choosing a sample site and running experiments on high phosphorus concentration soils with and without gypsum, it was concluded that gypsum can in fact reduce phosphorus leaching from Illinois soils!

All in all this project was an amazing opportunity and gave me valuable research experience. I learned so much and I am happy to be able to share this with the Illini Soil Judging community since the club introduced me to the opportunity in the first place!

National Great Rivers Research and Education Center is an amazing place to work and they accept a group of interns every summer! For more information or to apply visit their website: http://www.ngrrec.org

A preliminary version of one of the phosphorus level maps I created.
A preliminary version of one of the phosphorus level maps I created.
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