“I think it’s important to reach beyond your comfort zone,” says fourth-year biology student and Arthur Irving Scholar in Environmental Science Sadie Moland. “At Acadia, there are so many academic options available that I encourage everyone to explore something that has a certain base-level appeal to them as a person. If I hadn’t done this by taking an environmental history course from Dr. David Duke, I wouldn’t be on the research journey I’m currently enjoying.”
Academic curiosity and an enthusiasm for learning are evident when Sadie talks about the approach to her research. Inspired by a discussion in one of her non-science electives taught by Dr. Duke, Sadie learned about terra preta or “black earth”, a very dark, fertile soil found in the Amazon Basin. Created by humans between 450BC and 950AD, terra preta is fundamentally charcoal with very high concentrations of plant material, animal bones and manure, which turns the naturally infertile Amazonian soil into productive farmland.
Inspired by terra preta, agriculturalists are beginning to use charcoal – or biochar as it is technically called – to fertilize farmland. Besides its use as a fertilizer, two other interesting applications of biochar are that it stores carbon in the earth, thereby lowering CO2 emissions, and stimulates microbial activity in the soil. But to be used as a fertilizer, it needs to be properly treated or ‘charged’ before being applied to farmers’ fields. It works so well because the porous nature of biochar allows it to store nutrients from the fertilizer used to charge it then slowly release them into surrounding soil so they can be consumed by plants. But just how much better it works as a fertilizer has not been examined extensively and this is where Sadie’s curiosity takes over.
Contributing to a body of international research
“We expected biochar to work, but we didn’t know what the results would be,” she says of the research she’s conducting under the supervision of Acadia biology professor Dr. Allison Walker. “We’re growing native grass from seeds in our native plant seed bank here in the K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre as part of a study on wetland restoration, and the specimens grown in biochar are huge compared to the control samples. Dr. Walker is a mycologist so we’re also looking at how biochar contributes to the growth of certain fungi on the roots of plants. While I’d love to publish an academic paper, learning about the research process – designing my own experiments and gathering data – has given me a clearer idea of what I want to do and the credibility to apply for a wide variety of graduate programs.”
“I think what distinguishes Sadie is her genuine passion and curiosity, as well as her interest in the real-world applications of her work,” Walker says. “Sadie is very socially conscious and she brings that awareness of world issues to her work. She has a global perspective on her research project and is able to think laterally, delving into biochar research from the literature in agricultural and other systems and applying it to the field of ecological restoration. One of the great pleasures in working with Sadie is that she is already an effective teacher, and our team learns a lot from her. I feel this is a vital and under-taught skill in science: being able to communicate the importance of your work to broad audiences.”
At Acadia, Sadie says she receives tremendous support also from her co-supervisor, biology professor Dr. Don Stewart, and research collaborator Robin Browne, but she is quick to mention that her desire for learning was honed at her high school, Kennebecasis Valley High School. When considering universities, Acadia’s environmental conscience was what appealed to her and it was the only university to which the Quispamsis, New Brunswick resident applied. “The whole place, including the Town of Wolfville, seemed centered around the environment. I think students my age want to make a difference on really big issues, but I never thought it could happen at the undergraduate level. I didn’t know I wanted to do research until my second or third year, but being awarded an Arthur Irving Academy Scholarship gave me the incentive to pursue research.”
Acadia’s environment supports success
“The Arthur Irving Academy Scholarships encourage Acadia students to start actively looking for and participating in research projects much earlier in their career than would normally be the case,” says Dr. Dave Kristie, Director of Research at the K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre and Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens. “And because these scholarship recipients are very good students, our faculty researchers actively seek them out.”
“My style of mentoring is ‘lead from beside’,” Walker says. “I let the students take the lead on their projects and ensure their topic is something they are genuinely interested in. I’m available to guide them and teach them as necessary and for brainstorming and generating new ideas, as well as dealing with challenges as they arise. But I encourage students to take ownership of their projects early on, which Sadie has embraced. She is very self-motivated, and I think that is why we work well together.”
For other students considering Acadia, Sadie says that no matter what they might be interested in, there is something for them at Acadia. “Acadia is really a very big school in terms of opportunity,” she says. “I’m involved with the Acadia Community Farm and Acadia Pride and was a member of House Council when I lived on campus. People here care about who you are and where you’re going. All you have to do is talk to one professor to find out how true this is. Because of the support and encouragement at Acadia, I’m already doing things I thought I’d be doing 10 years down the road.”