A Simpson College-led research project to prevent the spread of a noxious weed that threatens the Corn Belt has received a big boost from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust.
The Carver Trust recently awarded Simpson a grant of $143,980, part of which will support and expand the study of Palmer amaranth, a fast-growing weed that has proven resistant to herbicides.
The majority of the grant will be used to renovate Room 211 in the Carver Science Center, resulting in a more collaborative floor plan, new furnishings and new technology, among other improvements.
“This generous grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust will enable Simpson College to make updates and enhancements to existing lab space, resulting in a better teaching, learning and research environment for our students, particularly those in the STEM fields,” said Simpson President Jay Simmons.
The grant will provide an additional $43,000 for the study of the Palmer amaranth weed, which will pay stipends to three students, provide supplies and pay for a summit, among other things.
“This plant has wreaked havoc in other states and is just now reaching Iowa,” said Rick Spellerberg, professor of mathematics. “Our goal is to stop it, and this grant is a great vote of confidence that we’re on the right path.”
If left unchecked, the weed can grow up to two inches a day and reach as high as seven feet tall.
For the past two summers, a team of Simpson students and professors has been producing models to predict the spread of Palmer amaranth, as well as studying the best approach to enlisting the agriculture community’s help in curtailing the weed.
“What we are aiming for is a way for farmers to discuss their practices with many other stakeholders so that the bigger questions of value can be specifically identified,” said John Pauley, professor of philosophy who joined the research team this summer.
Said Simmons: “This research is critical, as Palmer amaranth has the potential to impact not just Iowa farmers, but the entire agricultural community. We are grateful to the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust for its ongoing commitment to higher education.”
Michelle Johnson, Simpson’s director of foundation and government support, described obtaining the grant as a team effort designed to provide a better academic environment for students studying the STEM fields.
“The Roy J. Carter Charitable Trust grant is a tremendous win for so many – most importantly, our students,” she said. “The grant proposal was the collaborative effort of Jackie Brittingham, Rick Spellerberg, John Pauley, Kelley Bradder, Marilyn Leek, John Harris and Simpson College leadership. Each brought unique and valuable insight to the table, and worked tirelessly to ensure this story was told effectively. This was a very driven team.”
The weed research project began when Spellerberg read a newspaper story about the threat of Palmer amaranth and thought it sounded like the sort of complicated problem students are asked to solve during the Mathematical and Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling.
In that international competition, student teams are given 96 hours to collaborate and solve a real-world problem. This marked the 12th straight year Simpson has fielded more teams for the competition than any other college or university in the United States.
The project began in the summer of 2015 as part of the Dr. Albert H. and Greta H. Bryan Summer Research Program in Mathematics.
Since then, Simpson has enlisted the help of alumni working in the agriculture field for outside support. So far, the Iowa Soybean Association, ADM and BASF have contributed.
“The Palmer amaranth research and modeling project applies Simpson’s interdisciplinary expertise to a very pressing issue in U.S. agriculture,” said Brady Spangenberg, who works in market intelligence and research for BASF’s Crop Projection Division. He is a 2004 Simpson graduate.
“Good weed management requires a comprehensive blend of field scouting, data analysis, chemical and cultural practices. As a graduate and project collaborator, I’m excited to see all of these pieces come together under the Simpson umbrella,” he added.
The eight students on the research team represent a variety of majors and backgrounds. Some work on quantitative issues, such as predicting the weed’s spread through mathematical models, while others focus on qualitative concerns, such as how best to question farmers about their use of herbicides.
“It feels cool that I have a chance to be part of something that you can see is going to help the field of agriculture, especially with Iowa being a huge part of that,” said Park Mikels, a senior from Bloomfield majoring in mathematics, computer science and applied philosophy.
Mikels has worked on the project since it began. He said the project has expanded its focus from Iowa to the 14 states in the Corn Belt.
Students have determined that the weed will have spread to 70 percent of Iowa counties in the next 10 years. They also have discovered that Palmer amaranth is a particularly difficult weed to eliminate.
Zoe Muehleip, a fifth-year senior from Dubuque, said the project has shown her the practical applications of her major, applied philosophy, and minor, sustainability studies.
“I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect before the summer started,” she said. “On a day to day basis it doesn’t seem monumental, but looking back on what we’ve done this summer it feels like it has snowballed.”
Spellerberg said the students are discussing how to get all segments of the agriculture community involved, from 4H and FFA students to corn and soybean growers.
“We have to bring all of them together, because all of the approaches that have been used so far have failed miserably,” he said.