Abby Cahill ’21 shares her experience in environmental science and summer research

By Abby Cahill ’21, environmental science major

When I first made my way to Sweet Briar, I came as I was: without a reusable straw, buying the latest in trendy clothes each season and not thinking about the source of my food or drink. Nonetheless, I had long been interested in sustainability and learning the how and why of the natural world and the unique, catalyzing position of humans within it.

At the first Quad Rocks event during my first year, I eagerly signed up for the sustainability club. My conversations with friends in the club, coupled with my classes in the leadership core program and my environmental science major, lead to the realization that more needed to be done about sustainability, both on campus and in the outside world. By sophomore year, I had embraced thrifting and kept a reusable straw in a tote bag that I carried with me. The club had petered out, and there were rumors of a greenhouse project being undertaken at the College. With Lisa Powell, professor and director of the Center for Human and Environmental sustainability, and a few of my closest friends that I had grown to know in our classes (and weekends) together, I set out to restart the club and try to recenter the conversation in a greener direction.

The most important aspect of sustainability on campus is student involvement, not only because being more eco-conscious is of personal importance to many of us, but also because we can become better stewards of our resources and influence administrative decisions in the long-term. The faculty, students and community members championing inclusive, conscientious and relevant sustainability efforts are of growing importance in the Sweet Briar conversation.

Today, I am president of the sustainability club, I hold a position as a greenhouse assistant working on campus, part of my senior research involves helping design a sustainability plan for the college, and I’ve spent a summer doing honors research on sustainable agriculture and forest farming. During my time here, my convictions have been challenged, reshaped and strengthened. My experiences have become more relevant to the line of work I want to pursue, and I’ve allowed my education to permeate through my life and been emboldened by it. I am passionate and excited about what I can continue to learn from the world as I move my way forward into it. 

My honors research project
Interplanted mushrooms and vegetable crops

The summer of 2020 was a challenging one, to say the least. The spring of my sophomore year was cut short with COVID-19 forcing classes to move online. However, the situation wasn’t as dire as it seemed. With Professor Powell, I was able to convert the honors research proposal I had been planning for weeks into something feasible for COVID. My summer research was an investigation of potential symbiotic relationships between interplanted mushrooms and vegetable crops.

I explored the roles of mushrooms in soil health and conducted scoping work on the potential for mushroom cultivation and other types of forest farming on the Sweet Briar campus. Alternative agriculture is a rapidly expanding field as climate and environmental issues juxtapose an ever-increasing world population teetering atop an industrialized agricultural system. Holistic, creative solutions, such as the ones investigated in this research, have the potential to help alleviate tensions between the environment and society while contributing to efforts to achieve food systems sustainability.

I worked with Professor Powell to run field experiments exploring the potential of intercropping mushrooms with various types of plants in order to improve soil health, plant health and yield. While she worked on campus, I was able to conduct research remotely from my home-garden in Powhatan, Va. 

At Sweet Briar, we put into place a divided plot of tomatoes, with mycelium (the biotic filament associated with mushroom growth) on one side of the barrier and the control on the other. In Powhatan, I had a similar tomato plot, as well as a corn and strawberry plot. We took baseline soil samples at the beginning of the summer, then monitored the plant growth and yield throughout the research period.

The yield results for tomatoes were contradictory across locations, with treated plots in Powhatan averaging just over half a kilo more per plant and those at Sweet Briar with nearly three-quarters of a kilo less per healthy plant. The soil results were a bit more consistent, with a decrease in pH and organic matter in both treated plots at Sweet Briar. This actually contradicted our hypothesis, but it’s possible that the decrease was due to nutrient runoff or sampling inconsistencies. It is important to note that significant developments in soil health take place over months to years, meaning that it was unlikely we would see significant results during this period. In order to continue monitoring soil developments, we removed the tomato plants and planted kale with the mushrooms. This October, we harvested kale and have seen our first mushroom!

As the environmental issues threatening our society are continually introduced and facilitated by human activity, the search for more eco-conscious, sustainable techniques is in full swing. I am personally interested in alternative agricultural movements and agroecology, which is the practice of integrating ecological concepts (such as biodiversity and symbiosis) in a manner beneficial to humans and considerate of natural ecosystems. Additionally, the research that I did over the summer addresses the nutritional and socio-economic aspects of food systems as well.

Forest farming

The other aspect of my research focused on an analysis of forest farming as it applies to Sweet Briar. A forest management program that focuses almost solely on timber—as the one currently in-place at Sweet Briar—forgoes rich cultural, educational and economic connections with the land and surrounding communities. Forest farming is a more holistic, whole-ecosystem approach with economic viability, and its positive impact on the surrounding communities and our lands is worth consideration from the College. Forest farming is not aesthetically offensive and could facilitate better management of trail systems throughout the forests for the on-campus community. Additionally, forest farming traditionally stems from the practices of Indigenous people. As Sweet Briar sits on Monacan Indian land, it is imperative to respectfully consider a variety of perspectives. Many sustainable harvest practices come from indigenous practice, including carefully managed populations that are not as susceptible to depletion over multiple rounds of harvest, crop and harvesting rotation, replanting and harvesting mature plants. Indigenous systems are still incredibly relevant to best practices today. Acknowledging those practices and tying operations back to the roots of where they started is necessary. 

Beyond advancing my technical skills in the environmental science field and solidifying my understanding of writing scientific papers, the research helped me to understand the role of place not only in plant interactions, but also in the broader context of my campus, its communities and its history.