Friday Feature: Bird Researcher, PhD Student Cody Cox

cody_toucanetCody Cox is a PhD student in Integrative Conservation and Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia who is conducting his research at UGA Costa Rica. Cody’s research focuses on ornithology and spatial approaches to wildlife conservation.

As part of his PhD research, Cody is examining how landscape structure, specifically the arrangement of forested and agricultural areas, affects the movement patterns of several bird species in the region around UGA Costa Rica’s campus. This kind of data is critical for developing effective conservation plans for these species.

We were able to join Cody as he took a group of students from the National Geographic Student Expedition program through part of his daily process from retrieving birds from the nets to data entry.

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Pura Agua, Pura Vida!

For the past three years, the Arenal-Tempisque Irrigation District governed by Costa Rica’s National Service of Underground Water, Irrigation, and Drainage (SENARA), has experienced drought conditions complicating water management and agricultural production.

UGA graduate students have been key players in developing a model and providing data to aid the drought-stricken district through their Costa Rica Water Resources project. Through collaborative research with NASA, SENARA “was provided with continuous data to more efficiently manage water resources, benefiting local stakeholders including irrigators, and more than 1,000 individual users of the stream,” the project abstract explains.

Steve Padgett-Vasquez is a current PhD candidate at UGA and an advisor to the Costa Rica Water Resources project team. During his first year of graduate school, Padgett-Vasquez helped instate a DEVELOP branch at UGA, a program that partners young researchers, such as himself, with NASA, and uses leading data from NASA Earth observations to address environmental issues.

“I have been working with DEVELOP since 2010, which has given me valuable experience in creating project ideas,” he said.

The Costa Rican Water Resources project came about after Padgett-Vasquez took a Water Management course taught by Dr. Quint Newcomer, Director of UGA Costa Rica. The highlight of the course included staying at UGA Costa Rica’s campus and traveling to Cañas in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica.

It was there that the class met Javier Artiñano Guzmán, an agronomist for SENARA, who spoke about the drought throughout the Arenal-Tempisque Irrigation District. Padgett-Vaquez said listening to Artiñano Guzmán discuss his interest in updating the current GIS infrastructure, and as a result improving water management data, “was all it took to decide it would be a great project.” Padgett-Vasquez already had approval from the US Costa Rican Embassy and the DEVELOP National Program Office to move forward with project planning.

According to Padgett-Vasquez, the long-term impact of this partnership is for SENARA to benefit from supplemental NASA Earth observation data, collected by NASA satellites, and systematically overcome environmental stresses such as drought. Similarly, “participants who are part of the team, Javier [Artiñano Guzmán], and SENARA, will not only get a technical report, but a methodology and training on how to use the data,” Padgett-Vasquez added.

This short clip is an informative overview of the outstanding research being done!

Blog post contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

LEM: Getting started is half the battle

This is Part Three of a three part series on Local Effective Microorganisms (LEM) by Laura Ney and Kishan Mahmud. You can read Part One here and Part Two here.

On Wednesday, we looked at how LEM is made. Now, it’s time to look at the next step of the process.

LEM-Part3After making the LEM we:

  • Planned and marked our plot layout
  • Planted our plots
  • Built shelters for the compost study
  • Learned how to isolate DNA
  • Plated samples of our 4 LEM barrels for bacterial and fungal colony counts
  • Brewed the LEM liquid phase
  • Sampled and collected over 100 gallons of swine effluent from the UGA swine unit
  • Designed and built CO2 respiration/ammonia volatilization chambers
  • Insulated our LEMs against U.S. winters
  • Designed and built an application system to apply our treatments
  • And took hundreds of base-line samples

After a long, very smelly day of mixing and applying our LEM, False-LEM and Swine Effluent treatments, on Thursday Dec 4th 2014, the project officially began!

Now the real work begins. We have gotten the project off of the ground. The next few years, both here and in Monteverde, we will be measuring microbial activity using home-made CO2 respiration and NH3 volatilization chambers. We will be extracting nematodes from soil samples and analyzing their numbers and community structure. We will extract DNA samples and determine the different types of bacteria that are present and surviving in the soils. We will perform many different chemical extractions in order to measure the available nutrients of the soils. And these are just some of the array of soil analyses that we will preform on our plots. We will also perform various crop analyses which include taking near infra red readings which compare chlorophyll levels (greenness) as well as measuring yield and nutrient content of harvested crops. And maybe at the end of it all, we will have a slightly better understanding of the mystery of nutrient cycling that is constantly going on beneath our feet.  We would love to share our findings and along the way, explain some of the science and mechanisms behind why we are doing what we are doing and how soil does what it does.

Making Local Effective Microorganisms (LEM)

This is Part Two of a three part series on Local Effective Microorganisms (LEM) by Laura Ney and Kishan Mahmud. You can read Part One here.

Before we can preform any kind of project studying LEM, we must have LEM. The fermentation process required for LEM to mature takes about a month, so making the LEM was one of the first things we did. In Costa Rica, we had been making LEM for over a year before I (Laura) had begun my project so we had the technique down. The ingredients that are required: semolina flour, molasses, charcoal, raw milk, yeast and of course, the leaf litter, were all things that were readily available on campus. We ordered the semolina through the same providers that we ordered our live-stock supplemental feed, we kept a constant stock of cattle molasses in a big 50 gallon barrel, we had sacks of charcoal from cleaning out the fireplace and raw milk is obviously not a problem when you milk your own cows. In the U.S. however, these simple items were not quite as easy to come by. We had to call multiple sources before we found reasonably priced 50 pound sacks of semolina flour, we cleaned Kroger out of their 4.5 pound bags of all natural charcoal and since selling raw milk in Georgia is illegal, we had to find a local, raw goat milk producer whose milk was sold under the clause that it was for pet consumption only. Not to mention having to find the 50 gallon, open topped, food-grade plastic barrels to store the LEM in.


Once we finally got all of our ingredients and barrels gathered together we had the task of mixing it all up. This was no small task since we were making four batches of this stuff. (We collected leaf litter from three different locations to see if there was a difference in microbial communities between the location plus we had to make one “False LEM”, which contains no leaf litter inoculant.) To make all four of these LEM batches, we hand-mixed 200 pounds of semolina flour, with over 50 pounds of crushed charcoal, three sacks of collected leaf litter and multiple gallons of goats milk and molasses. Once we were done, we shoveled them into their respective barrels, sealed the tops and just made it to our next class, looking and smelling like we’d escaped from a baked goods factory explosion.

Stay tuned for Part Three of our LEM series on Friday!

Ooh, That Smell: An Introduction to Local Effective Microorganisms (LEM)

What is that smell? If you have had the chance to visit UGACR, you may have noticed a peculiar smell coming from the sinks, the restrooms or even the stable. It’s not a bad smell, but it’s also not a smell many people are accustomed to. It is the smell of local effective microorganisms (LEM) or microorganismos de la montaña (MM) if you are in Costa Rica. LEM is a living solution of microorganisms used for a variety of purposes including cleaning out plumbing and reducing the foul odors and flies associated with livestock. The punch that it packs, especially when smelled in it’s concentrated form, is due, in part, to the fermentation process that is used to produce it. LEM is made by collecting leaf litter from the forest floor and then mixing the litter (and all of the microbes that come with it) into a barrel full of sugar, flour and charcoal which serve as food for those microbes. The microbes and their food are then sealed in an air-tight barrel and left to “brew” for at least one month. After the fermentation step is completed the mixture can be seeped like tea in sugar water and applied in liquid form.

Kishan Mahmud and myself (Laura Ney) will be researching the effects of LEM in agricultural production systems under the direction of Dr. Dory Franklin in UGA’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. We will be looking specifically at the effect of LEM on nutrient cycling and plant availability when applied to forages and legume crops in conjunction with an organic nutrient source. We have the exciting opportunity to conduct our research in two entirely different ecosystems and climate zones – in the temperate piedmont of Watkinsville, Georgia and in the subtropical mountainside of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Conducting our research requires adapting our designs, materials and methods to the two very different environments that we are working in. It also involves manual labor, engineering, chemistry, biology and lots of manure. When we talk about all of the chemistry and microbiology research that we are doing, you may  picture white coats, fancy machines and lab benches filled with chemicals and glassware. That is a pretty accurate description of our lab but in crop and soil science research there is a lot of dirty work to do before you put on that white coat. Over the course of the next week, we will be sharing some of the wide range of experiences that we have had thus far as we’ve begun our project, but first we’ll tell you a little about who we are.

Laura NeyLaura

I am a master’s student in UGA’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. I went to UGACR for the first time on a study abroad program as an undergraduate in 2009. I have gone back many times since then and spent a year working as a farm intern/naturalist after I graduated from the Horticulture department. I am passionate about sustainability and about the importance of understanding the incredible complexity of soil. I am thrilled to be able to continue my education in soil science while continuing my connection with the UGA Costa Rica campus.

Kishan MahmudKishan

I am a PhD student in UGA’s Department of Crop and Soil Science.  I have been studying Soil and Environmental Sciences for the last seven years in Bangladesh, where I am from. My current research is in Georgia, on the locally derived effective microorganisms. While Laura will be focusing on crop quality, nematode community structure and soil nutrients, my work will be focused on microbial activity, microbial community structure and ecosystem services.