Last fall, the Southeastern Conference announced an expansion to its lineup of academic-centered initiatives, with the debut of a new event to highlight the far-reaching impact of research initiated by members of the SEC.
Sponsored by SECU, which specifically focuses on advancing the academic endeavors of member institutions, a new SEC Academic Conference series will connect the minds of researchers, faculty and students across the region. To increase accessibility for faculty and students, the events will take place on a college campus—the first held at Mississippi State University.
Ranked among the top 100 research institutions in the National Science Foundation’s latest survey, Mississippi State accounted for $226.4 million in total research and development expenditures. Mississippi State officials jumped at the chance to host this SEC event, according to David Shaw, the university’s vice president for research and economic development.
“When we have the ability to address a globally important topic and have the opportunity to showcase our university, it’s a win-win situation all the way around,” Shaw said.
With a focus on “The Future of Water,” the March conference examined a subject that rests heavily on the minds of scientists, engineers and researchers as environmental factors shift with time around the globe. In recent years, water issues have been pushed to the forefront of critical research in response to increased demand for both water and energy, as well as variables in climate.
“Globally, there are very few topics that are more important,” Shaw explained. “This affects many different aspects of research. From droughts in California and India to the availability of sanitary water in Africa, it’s an expansive topic of conversation.”
Along with conference organizers, Mississippi State officials welcomed three distinguished keynote speakers to explore this research and share expertise from diverse backgrounds in water resources.
Serving as headlining speakers were John M. Barry, the best-selling author of “Rising Tide;” Dennis Dimick, a former executive environment editor at National Geographic magazine; and Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.
“It was really exciting to have a NASA scientist, a best-selling author and a former CEO of National Geographic on our campus as speakers,” Shaw said. “It speaks volumes about the stature of Mississippi State and of the vision that we have going forward in this crucial research domain.”
Experts from each of the 14 SEC institutions also spoke throughout the two-day conference, with sessions covering policy, shared coastlines, climate change and shared watersheds. The Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies also were represented during conference proceedings.
Shaw said conferences like this invigorate the minds of attendees, especially students.
“I will tell you that real innovation comes from fresh minds that don’t yet understand the word ‘no,’” Shaw said. “The opportunity to connect this global topic with students who have unique ideas and untapped potential–that’s something we’re excited to see come out of this conference.”
Designed to facilitate innovation and idea-sharing among attendees, the conference itinerary included networking opportunities and breakout panels to encourage discussion between SEC students, faculty and researchers.
Although often characterized by competitive athletics and die-hard fans, the SEC is no stranger to collaboration among member institutions. A recent social media and commercial campaign highlighted academic accomplishments and partnerships taking place among member institutions because in the SEC, the effort to make a difference “just means more.”
“The interaction between SEC faculties is probably one of the most important elements of the whole conference,” Shaw said. “By cultivating these conversations among trailblazers in the field of water research, I think we will see interactions that spark an idea between minds, with potential for those ideas to transform into joint research proposals or collaborations among universities.”
By hosting the SEC Academic Conference and exploring possibilities for the future of water, Mississippi State is also pursuing its existing university-wide research initiative to eliminate global hunger. This commitment analyzes the challenge of feeding a growing population that is expected to surpass 9.5 billion by the year 2050.
In 2014, MSU President Mark E. Keenum joined Presidents United to Solve Hunger, which strengthened the university’s focus on global hunger solutions and engaged researchers from across the university to target each area of the food chain, including water resources.
“We talk a lot about food security, which means a safe and sufficient supply of high quality food. There are many factors that come into play, but there is no factor more important or necessary in the production of food than the availability of water,” Shaw said. “When you talk about food sources, you have to have the conversation about water sources at the same time.”
MAKING WAVES IN WATER RESEARCH
As interest grows for innovative research at Mississippi State, university faculty and students from various departments across campus are making significant contributions in areas of water conservation, sustainability and ecosystems.
With concerns growing over the decline of groundwater pumping resources in the United States, researchers at Mississippi State are working to conserve the country’s natural resources by implementing alternative methods of water storage.
Groundwater serves as the main source of drinking water for about half of the population of the United States and nearly all of the rural population. But because of excessive pumping, many areas of the country are seeing exponential depletion of these water sources.
As part of a project initiated by the United States Department of Agriculture, members of James Worth Bagley College of Engineering and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are working to implement on-farm water treatment systems in the Mississippi Delta, a major contributor of food and fiber across the country. These systems collect and recycle nutrient-rich run-off water, which is then used during summer’s dry months as an alternative to irrigation from groundwater pumping.
Since groundwater has traditionally been a source of sustenance for crops in rural Mississippi areas, Joel Paz, an associate professor in the dual-college agricultural and biological engineering department, believes the change can have long-term effects on the ecosystem and current irrigation methods.
“We want to prepare for a time when water might be scarce,” Paz said. “We get plenty of rainfall, especially in the winter, but the challenge has been finding a way to harvest and store it. These on-farm, water-storage systems act as a solution to how we handle water efficiently.”
Efforts to monitor the treatment system, which wrapped up in the fall of 2016, were successful. One Mississippi farmer was able to use water from the storage pond for an entire summer, eliminating the need to pump any groundwater.
“Imagine the amount of water savings you’d see if our structure was implemented by the majority of farming systems across the Mississippi Delta,” Paz said. “With the constraint of low groundwater levels, we’ve got to face the issue of altering the water sources meant for agriculture and irrigation. These systems can be applied as part of that solution, even on a global stage.”
Since water and energy appear as allied environmental resources, a natural inclination to unite them exists in the realm of environmental conservation.
With a deep-rooted passion in both areas, Veera Gnaneswar Gude, an assistant professor in the civil and environmental engineering department, has initiated two projects regarding wastewater and energy conservation.
“Water and energy are two of our most fundamental resources,” Gude said. “We really need to protect these in order for future generations to live without a problem.”
Combining innovation with conservation, Gude and his team of graduate and undergraduate students are working to generate energy from wastewater sources. Using a microbial desalination process, anammox and electron-producing bacteria treat pollutants in the wastewater. The carbon waste that is removed can be converted into an energy source.
“While existing resources can create energy and might be cheaper, they also put chemicals and wastes back into the ecosystem,” Gude said. “This process allows us to create energy without neglecting existing resources and generating more waste to negatively impact the environment.”
Community-wide water issues are also being addressed by Gude’s research. To find sustainable solutions to wastewater concerns in rural Mississippi communities, he is developing options for on-site treatment systems by analyzing past and present community conditions, along with external factors like weather and seasonal activity.
“We’re looking into the problems these communities have and are working to create a valuable source for wastewater treatment and management,” Gude explained. “We want to make sure these communities have water that is compliant with the environmental standards.”
With funds from the EPA, United States Geological Survey, Mississippi Water Resources Research Institute and the National Science Foundation, Gude strives to design both projects to be ecologically and economically friendly, with an added emphasis on preparing the environment for future use.
“My hope is to design a framework for the sustainable development of global communities, whether those areas are water-rich or drought-stricken,” Gude said. “I think the key to achieving that lies in examining the commonalities between the holistic system of water and energy schemes.”
About 250 miles south of the Mississippi State campus, where coastal shores meet rippled waves of the Gulf of Mexico, the traditional process for maintaining coastal ecosystems is undergoing a transformation.
An assistant professor in the agricultural and biological engineering department, Anna Linhoss is developing an innovative hydrodynamic model that has the potential to change the way the oyster population and its ecosystem are cared for.
As a result of oil spills, oyster restoration has risen in priority to save a huge economic resource while monitoring the general health of the Gulf.
For experts to introduce a substrate that oysters can grow on, specific environmental factors, like salinity, must be present for the organisms to thrive. By mapping the presence of those needed qualities in the western Mississippi Sound and simulating the water quality, Linhoss’ model will allow experts to plan more efficiently, eliminating the need to test the ever-changing salinity with a probe from a boat. And with national funding from sources like the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, she believes her research will have an impact beyond Mississippi’s waters.
“Oysters don’t respect state boundaries, and their larvae get transported across shared coastlines,” Linhoss said. “What we are doing here is affecting other places and what other places are doing is affecting us.”
Linhoss incorporates a regional focus into her projects that impact coastal communities across the Southeast. With funding from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, she works to track vanishing coastlines and moving sediment on Mississippi’s Deer Island, a barrier island that serves as both a buffer from Gulf storms and a source of tourism. She also works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor water quality and an increase in algal blooms on the Florida coast.
“Water-related research is an extensive reason to build collaboration and work together across different universities and states in the Southeast,” Linhoss said. “It will allow us to avoid interstate conflicts and build a regional identity for our water resources.”
Cross-college collaboration leads to sustainable design
A new raingarden in the landscape architecture department’s courtyard opened in April.
Funded by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, landscape architecture, graphic design and engineering students all had a hand in its creation.
Cory Gallo, associate landscape architecture professor, said the raingarden manages one-fourth of the building’s rainwater runoff, but the project’s main purpose is to serve as an educational showpiece that teaches about green infrastructure technologies.
“This is the most comprehensive raingarden demonstration project in Mississippi and perhaps even in the Southeast,” Gallo said. “I don’t know of any that communicate what a raingarden does as well as this one.”
The raingarden’s focal piece is a 2,000-gallon cistern that collects rainwater and directs excess water into a 1,500-square-foot bioretention basin where it is managed with soil and plants. It demonstrates sustainable water management in three steps: conveyance, storage and management. As water comes off the roof, it goes into the cistern for storage and then into the garden. Once in the garden, the water is cooled, filtered, absorbed and delayed.
Landscape architecture students built the garden while civil engineering students completed water quality testing prior to construction as part of the preliminary work.
Graphic design students developed informational graphics to communicate the project’s purpose in an effective, concise manner.
“All of the students worked really hard. I am very proud of them,” said Suzanne Powney, assistant professor in the Department of Art. “This is a permanent structure they can come back to years in the future and say, ‘I built this.’”