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October 19, 2020   |   Ithaca, NY

News

Remote fall semester delays student greenhouse research

When Ithaca College senior Seth Ormsby returned to Cazenovia, New York, to complete classes at home in the spring, his work and research at the college’s greenhouse halted abruptly. The hands-on learning required for his research at the greenhouse is not transferable to a virtual format, he said — and a fall that could have made up for lost time became another semester of longing for the humid, windowed space.

“It was really frustrating not being able to go to the greenhouse at all or being able to do the regular maintenance that I was doing,” he said. “I was getting really good at it, and I was enjoying it.”

Ormsby was accepted to a research group with Paula Turkon, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, in Fall 2019. He would have spent this summer and Fall 2020 continuing research on and maintaining the aquaponics system in the greenhouse. The system combines aquaculture and hydroponics, or caring for the greenhouse’s fish and cultivating plants in water, respectively.

Ormsby’s research focuses on reusing fish waste, a task that has been impossible to complete while away from the college, he said. 

“There’s a lot of inperson or hands-on classes or research opportunities that are not really being focused or emphasized right now,” Ormsby said. “Not having it right now or allowing … people to actually do that is kind of harmful.”

Senior Nina Ng is also part of the research group. While Ormsby said that he hopes to continue research in the greenhouse in the spring, Ng submitted a research proposal that does not depend on in-person research so she can start this semester instead of waiting to be in the greenhouse. Her project will analyze the ways aquaponics and community gardens can help reduce food deserts — a location with limited access to nutritious or affordable food. 

“We have to be more creative with how we’re going about our research projects and how we’re designing them,” she said. “We would love to be able to grow plants and test their nutrients compared to store bought … because that was something that I was planning to build off of [from a previous student’s research]. It’s really difficult to not be able to go into the greenhouse because … you don’t get that hands-on experience, which is a huge part of being in a lab and doing research.”

Rosanna Ferro, vice president of the Division of Student Affairs and Campus Life, said via email that the dean of every school at the college reviewed the academic programs that require hands-on experience for licensure or certification — athletic training, occupational therapy and physical therapy. Students from these majors who need to complete the professional phase of their degrees were allowed to return for in-person classes. 

“With respect to student workers, only those identified as essential to business continuity were granted permission to access … campus,” she said via email.

The collaborative research group, an independent study class for two credits, would have usually met in person on Thursdays. These have since shifted to Zoom meetings in which students in the group discuss the progress of their research, even if momentarily halted like Ormsby’s.

Both Ormsby and Ng said that being in the greenhouse was key to the class and their research. As a result of the pandemic, they said the class has lost the part that truly defines it. 

Every year, Turkon selects two students in the research group to assist with greenhouse maintenance, one of which is Ng. However, she cannot do general maintenance work at the greenhouse because of the campus restrictions. 

Greg Hornbrook, former greenhouse technician, was furloughed in March because of budgetary issues related to the pandemic, Turkon said. Hayley Harris, vice president for human resources and planning, said at the All-College Gathering on Sept. 22 that there will be more reductions in staffing as the semester progresses. At the end of April, approximately 167 employees at the college were laid off. 

After Hornbrook was furloughed and because students cannot assist with the maintenance of the greenhouse, Jessica Kerns, laboratory coordinator in the Department of Biology, and Laura Bechtler, animal care technician in the Department of Biology, stepped in. 

At the entrance to the greenhouse and near the bubbling fish tank, hand sanitizer, disinfectant and gloves are available for Bechtler and Kerns to use. Only one person is allowed in the greenhouse at a time. Like Ng would have done, Bechtler and Kerns check on the aquaponics system and care for the plants and animals living in the greenhouse.

Before coming to the college, Bechtler was a zookeeper for eight years. Now, Bechtler oversees the health of all animals on campus, including the greenhouse’s tilapia and bluegill fish. Her job includes cleaning, feeding and performing all of the conservation duties the animals need.

“You must be very detail oriented, have good time management and understand animal behavior — as they can’t tell you when something is wrong or if they are sick,” she said via email. “It has been a new and challenging six months learning [about the greenhouse] and making sure I am properly caring for the plants and the aquaponics system.”

While classes were in person, Turkon visited the greenhouse daily. But in the spring semester, after classes went online, these visits dwindled to weekly, hourlong ones on Sundays. She said that being in the greenhouse at that time provided a brief repose from the outdoor weather.

“Think about being shut up in your home, especially in the wintertime, and then you walk into this warm and sunny place, with plants all around and water sprinkling,” she said. “It was wonderful, and so I did dillydally sometimes.”

Bechtler said she had a similar experience.

“I love how bright and warm it is in there,” she said via email. “I am not an expert in plants that is for sure — I love caring for the animals. But there is something calming about being in there.”

A usual summer in the greenhouse would typically have one research student caring for the plants and animals. Instead of overseeing students’ work this summer, Turkon was tasked with doing it herself along with Bechtler and Kerns. Turkon said the plants and animals are alive and cared for with the daily maintenance. 

Ormsby said he had never taken care of plants before college, and it was only after working in the greenhouse that he realized his ambitions lie in organic farming. He said he hopes there will be in-person classes in Spring 2021 so he can complete his research. 

“I’m trying to stay optimistic,” he said. “I’m not contributing to the spread of [COVID-19]. … [The pandemic] can be a good opportunity for growth, so if everyone’s away from each other, maybe they’re more inspired to connect. Especially once we get back, they’ll be wanting to be more hands-on, more involved.”

Arleigh Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @arleighrodgers