The Palmer Amaranth Project: How Simpson Students Make a Difference

Maggie Long never took a philosophy course at Simpson, but she presented a paper at the Iowa Philosophical Society.

She first thought studying weeds would be boring, but now calls it “the most beneficial and worthwhile experience that I’ve ever had.”

She wasn’t thinking of being a researcher when she arrived at Simpson, but then found herself working on a project that has taken her throughout the country, including North Carolina, where she enjoyed “the best steak I ever had in my life.”

By the time the Des Moines native graduated in April, with degrees in math, neuroscience and biochemistry, Long had become the longest-serving member of The Palmer Project, an interdisciplinary attempt at Simpson to curtail and halt the spread of a noxious weed called Palmer amaranth.

If you are a farmer, or care about agriculture, or like to eat, the risk of Palmer amaranth should merit your attention. A so-called “super weed,” it grows quickly – two or three inches a day – can reach seven feet in height and produce a million seeds per plant. The weed, which is resistant to herbicides, has done most of its damage in southeastern states, but has been detected throughout the Midwest as well, including several counties in Iowa.

“The whole state is at risk, at some level,” said Clint Meyer, associate professor of biology and one of two Simpson faculty members guiding the student-run Palmer Project.

The goal is to determine where Palmer amaranth will spread in Iowa and then educate farmers about the risks and what practices they might employ to halt or curtail it.

At Simpson, the project began in the summer of 2015 with five students who were participating in the Dr. Albert H. and Greta A. Bryan Summer Research Program, under the direction of math professor Rick Spellerberg.

Meyer and John Pauley, professor of philosophy, took over when Spellerberg retired. Long, who had just completed her freshman year, took part in that first summer of research. She is one of 26 Simpson students to work on the project in the past three years.

“At the end of that first summer, we got pretty excited, because we saw where it could go,” she said. “There’s a real need for work like this in the field. We didn’t want this project to end.”

Under Meyer and Pauley, the students have recently attempted to produce models that synthesize quantitative factors – soil temperature and habitat, among others – with qualitative factors, such as farmer behavior and the economics of agriculture.

“It was looking at a combination of all those factors and determining where the hot spots for Palmer might be.”

Said Pauley: “It was hard.”

The project, which now continues year-round, has received more than $300,000 in funding. BASF has shown the most interest, primarily due to Brady Spangenberg, marketing intelligence manager for the company and a 2004 Simpson graduate.

Spangenberg, now a Simpson visiting scholar, became interested during a lunch with Pauley.

“I had no intention of even bringing up Palmer amaranth,” Pauley said. “I thought we’d talk about comparative literature and philosophy.”

Meyer said the BASF partnership is unique for Simpson. “The cool thing about it is that they plan to use some of our data.”

The project also receives funding from the Carver Bridge to STEM Success Program, and three students representing that program will join the research team this summer.

“It’s been a true interdisciplinary effort,” Meyer said. “There are students with expertise we don’t have. We have a pretty good mix of students working on it.”

For Long, graduation means getting married and plotting the future, which includes going to medical school at the University of Missouri-Columbia. But she plans to work on the Palmer Project part-time this summer and help mentor some of the new researchers. The next step for the group: Informing county conservation boards about the problems and studying whether undeveloped land in suburban areas may serve as breeding grounds for Palmer amaranth seed beds.

“I feel like this project has the potential to keep going and be long term, especially with the need out there,” Long said.

Long and other Simpson students have presented papers, attended seminars or taken field trips throughout the country, including the Yale Food Systems Symposium at Yale University earlier this year.

“I don’t think I’d be as comfortable speaking to groups if I hadn’t taken classes that forced me to do it,” she said.

Long said the project “made me grow as a person, academically and as a researcher.”

To Pauley, she is no longer a student.

“She’s a colleague.”