TREX 2017: Collecting soil samples on a sweet potato farm

January 18th, 2017TREX 2017

Sweet Potatoes and Sweet People | January 18, 2017 | Lily Dove Not much has changed between my six-year-old self and my 20-year-old self. I’m still stubborn, my favorite color is still pink, and I still like playing in the dirt. The difference now is that I can call my affinity for mud “science.” Today, we went out Mr. Richard Ha’s farm and got some soil samples from a field of sweet potatoes. Soil samples are exactly what they sound like: to get one, you stick your hands into the soil, scream a little bit when you feel an earthworm (or a sweet potato), and bring up a handful of soil to bring back to the lab. Labeling the samples is very important; it doesn’t matter how many samples you take if you don’t remember where they came from! Daniel Richman and Alexa Jaeger collecting soil samples. One might say they are outstanding in their field. Six of us collected over 70 samples in the few hours we were out at the farm. It was exhausting because of the hot sun, but definitely worth it! The next few days, we’ll be doing analysis on the nutrients present in the soil to help farmers plan their fertilization better. Amber and I (#TeamLimber) had a fantastic time collecting samples and we’re looking forward to using ArcGIS to map out the results from our nutrient, pH, and moisture calculations. Team Limber pose with our soil samples. Thanks Mother Nature! Everyone I have met [...]

Sweet Potatoes and Sweet People | January 18, 2017 | Lily Dove

Not much has changed between my six-year-old self and my 20-year-old self. I’m still stubborn, my favorite color is still pink, and I still like playing in the dirt. The difference now is that I can call my affinity for mud “science.”

Today, we went out Mr. Richard Ha’s farm and got some soil samples from a field of sweet potatoes. Soil samples are exactly what they sound like: to get one, you stick your hands into the soil, scream a little bit when you feel an earthworm (or a sweet potato), and bring up a handful of soil to bring back to the lab. Labeling the samples is very important; it doesn’t matter how many samples you take if you don’t remember where they came from!

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Daniel Richman and Alexa Jaeger collecting soil samples. One might say they are outstanding in their field.

Six of us collected over 70 samples in the few hours we were out at the farm. It was exhausting because of the hot sun, but definitely worth it! The next few days, we’ll be doing analysis on the nutrients present in the soil to help farmers plan their fertilization better. Amber and I (#TeamLimber) had a fantastic time collecting samples and we’re looking forward to using ArcGIS to map out the results from our nutrient, pH, and moisture calculations.

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Team Limber pose with our soil samples. Thanks Mother Nature!

Everyone I have met here in Hawaii so far has been so kind and generous with their time and energy. TREX is possible because of a lot of amazing people here and on campus and the class is so lucky to be here in Hawaii living, learning, and growing together. To anyone and everyone who helps make TREX possible: I hope the Hawaiian sweet potato crop will be great this year because of you!

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TREX 2017: The fieldwork learning curve

January 17th, 2017TREX 2017

Learning from the successes and failures of fieldwork | Tuesday January 17, 2017 | Lily Dove When most people think of science, they think of sterile labs, faceless people in white lab coats and gloves, and overall, a potentially not-so-fun working environment. On TREX, we are proving all of those misconceptions wrong. We have learned that science doesn’t have to be pretty if it’s functional; luckily, Hawaii provides the gorgeous backgrounds and scenery so it ends up being pretty anyway! Caption: Mikayla, me, and Tchelet (left to right) attach a solar panel to one of our sensors. Photo credit Alexa Jaeger. Hands-on science is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. There is nothing quite like building a sensor from scratch, attaching to a side of a building, checking in on it every hour, and then realizing the next day that it’s…broken. Or that it has stopped collecting data. Or that it would make a better paperweight than a sensor. There is a lot of failure when it comes to fieldwork, but it wouldn’t be fun if that weren’t the case. Failures help scientists learn and get better, and although failures can be disheartening at times, having a great team who can help you laugh and learn through all the mistakes along the way makes a big difference. If there’s one item in TREX that has witnessed the rough, tough, and messy nature of scientific research, it’s the table outside of the house we’ve been staying in. So much science (failures and all!) [...]

Learning from the successes and failures of fieldwork | Tuesday January 17, 2017 | Lily Dove

When most people think of science, they think of sterile labs, faceless people in white lab coats and gloves, and overall, a potentially not-so-fun working environment. On TREX, we are proving all of those misconceptions wrong. We have learned that science doesn’t have to be pretty if it’s functional; luckily, Hawaii provides the gorgeous backgrounds and scenery so it ends up being pretty anyway!

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Caption: Mikayla, me, and Tchelet (left to right) attach a solar panel to one of our sensors. Photo credit Alexa Jaeger.

Hands-on science is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. There is nothing quite like building a sensor from scratch, attaching to a side of a building, checking in on it every hour, and then realizing the next day that it’s…broken. Or that it has stopped collecting data. Or that it would make a better paperweight than a sensor. There is a lot of failure when it comes to fieldwork, but it wouldn’t be fun if that weren’t the case. Failures help scientists learn and get better, and although failures can be disheartening at times, having a great team who can help you laugh and learn through all the mistakes along the way makes a big difference.

If there’s one item in TREX that has witnessed the rough, tough, and messy nature of scientific research, it’s the table outside of the house we’ve been staying in. So much science (failures and all!) happened on that table in the last three days, I think it deserves the Nobel Prize for Flat Surfaces. I expect in the next few days, the table will see a fair amount more of soil spills, sensor testing, and hopefully, surprises and successes! I look forward to spending a lot more time working on the table with great company and new discoveries.

 

This table has been through a lot.  Professor Ben Kocar teaches us how to test the pH of soil samples, on right. Tchelet , Mikayla, and I pose with the solar cells which power our sulfur dioxide sensors, left. Photo credit Alexa Jaeger.

Every year, a group of MIT students and professors travel to the Big Island of Hawaii to gain fieldwork experience through TREX (Traveling Research Environmental EXperiences). The first TREX trip was held in 2000, and since launching has taken students on research activities in domestic and international settings.

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TREX 2017: First day of fieldwork

January 15th, 2017TREX 2017

Sensor Squad | Sunday January 15, 2017 | Alexa Jaeger Today was the first real day of field work. We split into two teams for the two different projects: sensor squad and the UAV team. I was a member of the sensor squad. We spent the day mounting our sensors at the site of a Hawaiian Department of Health air quality monitoring station at Pahala. The idea is to leave our sensors by the official sensor and then use the official sensor data to calibrate our sensors’ data. This will allow us to convert our voltage data from the working electrode into SO2 data in ppb. In addition, it will allow us to verify that our sensors are working properly. It was a lot of fun finding ways to safely mount the sensors and their solar panels. We got to climb on a roof and do some MacGyver-ing. Using string, tape, zip-ties, old pieces of wood, and some good old fashioned engineering we fastened two sensors onto a fence and 6sixsensors onto a wind measurement tower at the monitoring station. Lily Dove and Daniel Richman stand on the roof to mount sensors to the wind measurement tower. When we returned to the Kilauea Military Camp, we started writing the code that we will use to calibrate the sensor data. It was rough at first since half of us had no experience with R or with GitHub, but we all started to learn soon enough. We split into 3 groups to [...]

Sensor Squad | Sunday January 15, 2017 | Alexa Jaeger

Today was the first real day of field work. We split into two teams for the two different projects: sensor squad and the UAV team. I was a member of the sensor squad. We spent the day mounting our sensors at the site of a Hawaiian Department of Health air quality monitoring station at Pahala. The idea is to leave our sensors by the official sensor and then use the official sensor data to calibrate our sensors’ data. This will allow us to convert our voltage data from the working electrode into SO2 data in ppb. In addition, it will allow us to verify that our sensors are working properly.

It was a lot of fun finding ways to safely mount the sensors and their solar panels. We got to climb on a roof and do some MacGyver-ing. Using string, tape, zip-ties, old pieces of wood, and some good old fashioned engineering we fastened two sensors onto a fence and 6sixsensors onto a wind measurement tower at the monitoring station.

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Lily Dove and Daniel Richman stand on the roof to mount sensors to the wind measurement tower.

When we returned to the Kilauea Military Camp, we started writing the code that we will use to calibrate the sensor data. It was rough at first since half of us had no experience with R or with GitHub, but we all started to learn soon enough. We split into 3 groups to write scripts to pull data from our sensors (which we have named the Model T sensors), the open AQ website containing hourly Department of Health Data, and from a spreadsheet containing data values for each minute from the monitoring station.

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Lily Dove, Danielle Hecht, and Jesse Kroll dive into learning R

Taking a break to hike the Kīlauea Iki | Sunday January 15, 2017 | Daniel Richman

Our afternoon passed productively, spent writing R scripts to collect data from our sulfur dioxide sensors. For a break, we decided to hike the Kīlauea Iki (little Kīlauea) crater, which is inactive but otherworldly. In 1959, it filled with lava, sprayed and fountained to 1,900 feet, drained, and cooled. Descending into the crater reminded me of approaching the surface of the moon. It is dark and jagged with chunks and boulders and tiles of basalt. Barren? No, the ʻōhiʻa tree, Metrosideros polymorpha, dots the crater.

ʻŌhiʻa trees matter a great deal to Hawaii. They are the first plant species to colonize a new lava flow, their roots probing into the rock for water and nutrients. Their growth patterns and adaptability were extensively studied by Peter Vitousek, the famous biologist of the islands. They live at high elevations and low, in dry and wet conditions, on basalt and on soil—but they look proudest when they are alone on the lava fields.

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An ʻōhiʻa tree rooted in the crater

Jagged aʻa and smooth ropy pāhoehoe lavas cover the crater. Little steam clouds rise here and there from its surface, not volcanic gas emissions but simply rainfall, filtered through the  rock, then jolted by the heat into leaving the earth. Huge cracks divide portions of the landscape, with tiles of lava upturned and rotated this way and that. There are hills and flat sections of lava, cairns and pillows and crags of black basalt, and we humans filing along deep within.

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The sun sets near the edge of Kīlauea Iki.


Every year, a group of MIT students and professors travel to the Big Island of Hawaii to gain fieldwork experience through TREX (Traveling Research Environmental EXperiences). The first TREX trip was held in 2000, and since launching has taken students on research activities in domestic and international settings. Third year CEE student Alexa Jaeger and Fourth year EECS student Daniel Richman share their adventures.

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TREX 2017: Students test equipment and explore local Hawaii farm

January 14th, 2017TREX 2017

Adjusting to Hawaii and getting started | Saturday January 14, 2017 | Alexa Jaeger A rooster calls loudly. That is how the morning started for the TREX students. A handful of roosters ran around behind our hotel crying out from 5 AM onward. I never knew how loud roosters are! I took advantage of the wake-up call and my jet-lag-driven alertness and got out of bed at 5:30 AM. I set up my tripod with my new camera on our balcony facing east to try to capture a time-lapse of the sunrise. The new camera that I got for Christmas (shout out to my mom) can connect with my phone wirelessly. So I relaxed in bed, watching the sunrise on my phone, and using my phone to remotely take pictures for my time lapse. It was a pretty cool way to start the day. Hawaii sunrise Next we embarked on the 2 hour journey from our hotel to Kilauea Military Camp. Danielle and I rode in Ben’s van. Our caravan of vans and cars wound through the beautiful Hawaiian landscape, passing ocean views and old lava flows. I guess the scenery was distracting because somehow we ended up following a random white van that was not one of our own. Suddenly Ben’s van had taken a random detour by a black sand beach, accidentally stalking an old couple in a similar van. Oops. Let’s call it the scenic route and say we did it on purpose. We arrived at Kilauea [...]

Adjusting to Hawaii and getting started | Saturday January 14, 2017 | Alexa Jaeger

A rooster calls loudly. That is how the morning started for the TREX students. A handful of roosters ran around behind our hotel crying out from 5 AM onward. I never knew how loud roosters are! I took advantage of the wake-up call and my jet-lag-driven alertness and got out of bed at 5:30 AM. I set up my tripod with my new camera on our balcony facing east to try to capture a time-lapse of the sunrise. The new camera that I got for Christmas (shout out to my mom) can connect with my phone wirelessly. So I relaxed in bed, watching the sunrise on my phone, and using my phone to remotely take pictures for my time lapse. It was a pretty cool way to start the day.

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Hawaii sunrise

Next we embarked on the 2 hour journey from our hotel to Kilauea Military Camp. Danielle and I rode in Ben’s van. Our caravan of vans and cars wound through the beautiful Hawaiian landscape, passing ocean views and old lava flows. I guess the scenery was distracting because somehow we ended up following a random white van that was not one of our own. Suddenly Ben’s van had taken a random detour by a black sand beach, accidentally stalking an old couple in a similar van. Oops. Let’s call it the scenic route and say we did it on purpose.

We arrived at Kilauea Military Camp by noon. We are staying in a firehouse on the base. It has a lovely open kitchen, perfect for collaborative work. In addition, it has a hot tub (Course 1: doing research in luxurious style).

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Deanna Delgado admiring our hot tub

After lunch, we split into groups to get different tasks done. Some went to the store, some went to test out some UAVs at a farm, and some stayed behind to prepare our SO2 sensors. Tchelet, Mikayla, Lilly, and I were on sensor duty with David. We put batteries in all the sensors and tested them while jamming to Disney music. We got 13/15 sensors working right away which is a great start for day one.

Learning from locals and testing UAVs with drones | Saturday January 14, 2017 | Daniel Richman

On Saturday, five of us visited a farm and tested our drone over sweet potato and banana fields. The farm we visited is situated in Pepeekeo (prounounced Peh-peh-ay-kay-oh), about ten miles north of Hilo. This location lies near the bullseye of highest rainfall on the island: more than 120 inches a year. We flew the drone about 100 feet above the crops, collecting visible and near-infrared imagery.

The owner of the land is an impressive and terrific guy, a Native Hawaiian named Richard Ha. His 600 acres are a few miles from the ocean, but they slope upward to the summit of Mauna Kea. We talked to him about the crops he grows, the soil and fertilizer he uses, and the land he rents out: to a company growing GMO corn, to people who plant bananas, to the University of Hawaii Extension for taro experiments.

Mr. Ha even produces his own electricity. In the bygone era of the Hawaiian sugar cane plantations, a narrow canal was dug to divert water from the Waiʻaʻama Stream. At harvest time, workers could simply float cane down the hillside to the canal’s bottom, where it would be collected and processed. Now, thanks to a state loan program that Mr. Ha himself helped to create, the water runs through a filter that removes debris. It then passes down a pipe within the hill own hydroelectric generating station, which produces 100 kW of power, enough to power about five Hawaiian households—or one large farm and more.

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A false-color infrared view of bananas from 200 feet up

I could talk on and on about Mr. Ha, but our real purpose in coming was to test our drone on some of his banana and sweet potato fields. Healthy plants reflect more infrared light than sick plants do, so by comparing IR brightness with brightness in the visible range (the light plants absorb so they can photosynthesize), we can tell how well different areas of the field are thriving.

What might limit plant success? Nutrient bioavailability is a major problem in Hawaii. The iron oxide in the volcanic lava strongly binds soil nitrogen, limiting how much plants can use and requiring farmers to heavily apply fertilizer. Phosphorous and soil pH can present further difficulties, as can drainage. This week we’ll be collecting much more imagery and investigating what clues it can give us about plant health and soil conditions. We can then compare the images with soil samples and observations from around the field. With luck, we’ll be able to tell a detailed story about crop and soil conditions in the Hawaiian environment!

Every year, a group of MIT students and professors travel to the Big Island of Hawaii to gain fieldwork experience through TREX (Traveling Research Environmental EXperiences). The first TREX trip was held in 2000, and since launching has taken students on research activities in domestic and international settings.

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TREX 2017: From MIT to Hawaii (Eventually)

January 13th, 2017TREX 2017

Every year, a group of MIT students and professors travel to the Big Island of Hawaii to gain fieldwork experience through TREX (Traveling Research Environmental EXperiences). The first TREX trip was held in 2000, and since launching has taken students on research activities in domestic and international settings. Third year CEE student Alexa Jaeger shares the adventure of travelling to Hawaii over IAP 2017. #WhereIsBenKocar | Friday January 13, 2017 | Alexa Jaeger At 4:30 AM we departed for the airport, exhausted and excited. The plan was to meet outside security at 5AM. Right on time, all 11 of us stood by the Delta check-in desk with one of our TAs, David. TREX students bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at Logan Airport We had only one person to wait for…our professor, Ben. We waited. Ben did not arrive. We texted and called to inquire if we should go through security without him or continue waiting. Ben said that we should wait for him to arrive and give us “lipid” to distribute amongst our carry-ons. We were certain that this was an autocorrect error and that he did not actually intend to have us pack various fats and waxes. Despite our confusion about the “lipid”, we waited. And waited. Until it was 6:30 AM, our plane was boarding, and we still were not through security. Finally, David told us to go. We frantically rushed through security and made it onto the plane. As the plane doors were being shut, we got the first [...]

Every year, a group of MIT students and professors travel to the Big Island of Hawaii to gain fieldwork experience through TREX (Traveling Research Environmental EXperiences). The first TREX trip was held in 2000, and since launching has taken students on research activities in domestic and international settings. Third year CEE student Alexa Jaeger shares the adventure of travelling to Hawaii over IAP 2017.

#WhereIsBenKocar | Friday January 13, 2017 | Alexa Jaeger

At 4:30 AM we departed for the airport, exhausted and excited. The plan was to meet outside security at 5AM. Right on time, all 11 of us stood by the Delta check-in desk with one of our TAs, David.

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TREX students bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at Logan Airport

We had only one person to wait for…our professor, Ben. We waited. Ben did not arrive. We texted and called to inquire if we should go through security without him or continue waiting. Ben said that we should wait for him to arrive and give us “lipid” to distribute amongst our carry-ons. We were certain that this was an autocorrect error and that he did not actually intend to have us pack various fats and waxes. Despite our confusion about the “lipid”, we waited. And waited. Until it was 6:30 AM, our plane was boarding, and we still were not through security. Finally, David told us to go. We frantically rushed through security and made it onto the plane. As the plane doors were being shut, we got the first text from Ben that we had received since the “lipid” confusion. The text read: “Holdups on all fronts. I might not make this flight.” We all laughed at the obviousness of this fact.

This spawned the hashtag “#whereisBenKocar.” As we sat in Seattle during our 4 hour layover, we marveled that our professor could be literally anywhere in the country. From Seattle, we made our way to Kona, never knowing where Ben Kocar was. When we were at baggage claim in Kona, David got a text from Ben that informs us that he had also arrived in Hawaii (#thereisBenKocar). Disbelief spread throughout the students. How on Earth did he miss the flight and still make it to Kona on time!?

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How we felt when Ben made it to Kona

On the way from the airport to our hotel, I had a chance to ask Ben some important questions: Why did you miss the flight? How did you get to Hawaii? What in God’s name is the “lipid” you are carrying?!

So it turned out that Ben had been up all night trying to find a way to get the lithium batteries to Hawaii that we needed for our field work. FedEx changed its shipping policies and thus, a nightmare was born. The “lipid” text was supposed to be about these batteries for our UAVs (autocorrect was not even close). Despite missing the first flight, he miraculously managed to get on another flight to Kona through LAX and found a way to bring the batteries to Hawaii (#HawaiianSuperman).

The day was long and hilarious, but somehow it brought all 11 students, two TA’s and three Professors to the same hotel on the Big Island. After a long 24 hours of travel, we went to sleep and it felt amazing.

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Mugaritz visits MIT for creativity panel and to screen Off-Road documentary

January 10th, 2017News

In November 2016, Gilbert W. Winslow CD Associate Professor Pedro Reis invited Mugaritz chef Andoni Luis Aduriz to speak on a panel about creativity at MIT. The panel included professors from CEE, MechE, Architecture, Math and Music, from across the Institute. The interdisciplinary panel was followed by a screening of Off-Road, a documentary about Mugaritz, and ended with a Q&A with Aduriz. For more on the event, click here.

In November 2016, Gilbert W. Winslow CD Associate Professor Pedro Reis invited Mugaritz chef Andoni Luis Aduriz to speak on a panel about creativity at MIT. The panel included professors from CEE, MechE, Architecture, Math and Music, from across the Institute. The interdisciplinary panel was followed by a screening of Off-Road, a documentary about Mugaritz, and ended with a Q&A with Aduriz. For more on the event, click here.

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