10 December 2013

FEATURE SERIES III: Research Experience from the Highlands of Ethiopia - Jason Edwards, PhD Student in Ecology examining soil erosion processes

Feature Series III: Interview with research scientists and PhD student Jason Edwards. Jason and I met in Ethiopia at the Institute for Water and International Watersheds (IWMI) in Addis Ababa. His work inspired me at the time as he faced a great deal of difficulty in logistics getting out to his field site, plus he is doing some cutting edge analysis of combining social sciences context to natural science processes. I asked him to share some of his experience in this interview. Despite challenges, Jason was able to successfully create a great local network in Ethiopia who helped him get things done, and obtained successful data. He collected a series of soil cores for lab analysis. 

Bio: Jason Edwards is a PhD student of Ecology, housed in the Botany department in the Program in Ecology at theUniversity of Wyoming. Jason served in the US Military, received a B. S. from the University of Texas at Austin in plant biology, and has a keen interest in the human element of environmental problems. “While [at the University of Texas], my interest in human impacts on the environment was sparked by some work I did analyzing and sourcing heavy metals in particulate matter at the NuclearEngineering Teaching Lab. My interest in human impacts on the environment has been further developed by coursework at the University of Wyoming and research…on heavy and light isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen in mountain streams to detect precipitation signatures.” As a National Security Education Program Fellow, Jason acquired professional proficiency in Amharic language, as well as conducted field work in Ethiopia. (Ethiopia features some of the world’s most dramatic examples of active soil erosion.)

Jen: You are a graduate student and your work is related to water resources. Can you please tell me a bit about what you are researching and what aspect of water resources you are working with?
Jason: My current research addresses probable consequences of changing climate and governmental policy on soil erosion in agricultural regions. I was fortunate enough to be awarded the NSEP/Boren Fellowship to support this effort for 9 months in Ethiopia. My research site is in the central Ethiopian Highlands, near the east coast of Lake Tana. I am using a popular soil erosion model modified for Ethiopia. I have further modified this model to incorporate a cellular automata soil accounting framework. Agricultural areas respond to external changes, especially changing precipitation patterns. Precipitation in the Ethiopian Highlands is driven by sea surface temperatures off the coast of eastern India. If predicted changes in global temperatures cause a rise in the ocean temperatures in the Indian Ocean, then there is good reason to believe that the rainfall patterns in the Ethiopian Highlands will change as well. 

In plain English, this means that I watch soil erode through time under different economic and climate regimes. Using this approach allows us to estimate the consequences of different land use practices given environmental changes. Since agriculture depends on soil, the stock of this resource matters for supporting both crops and those who depend on it for survival. 

Jen: Yes, and both soils and agriculture are directly linked to water. Agriculture is driven by water resources availability, and it can impact the quality and quantity of water resources available to downstream users. Also, water is a driving factor in erosion processes. You have gotten out there to see this in action, gaining access to farmer’s fields in Ethiopia to collect samples. Can you please share a bit about the logistics of how you reach and stay in your field site?
Jason: The logistics were the most difficult part of the experience. I was lucky enough to meet some really great Ethiopians who were able to help me navigate paperwork and simply moving materials. The local Ethiopians were able to solve unexpected problems with my equipment using local resources, which was really helpful. For example, at one point we had to hire a machinist to fix a broken piece of rebar, it would have been very difficult to have gotten that done on my own. 

Jen: I remember you telling me about that and it was great that your counterparts could find a quick fix. Time is often times more important than money in field research - especially when you are out in the field. This leads me to my next question: What have been the biggest challenges in your fieldwork?
Jason: One of the challenges about working in a remote location is the lack of access to medical care. During one of my initial visits to the field to set up the social contacts necessary, I developed kidney stones. It was difficult to find transportation to the nearest city with medical facilities at 3:00 AM. Once my translator and I were able to locate a sober-ish driver, we were transported to a teaching hospital. I am quite certain that very few foreigners went to that facility, and I drew quite a crowd. I got a prescription to treat the pain, which was intended to tide me over until I made it back to Addis Ababa. As it happened, the morning flight I was scheduled to leave on was cancelled, so I had the pleasure of waiting in the Bahir Dar airport for 8 hours until the next flight. That experience was rather unpleasant, but the good news was that the chances of developing the same condition within a month were pretty low. Once that experience was out of the way, I was able to travel to the remote location to get the environmental assessments done with little worry about health problems.

Also, it was a challenge to get used to the change in perspective related to time. I suspect this is true anywhere outside of Western culture. I don't begrudge it, though, in fact, I prefer the pace of how things are done in my research area. Because of this, there is more time to think things through. [to see a blog post regarding time in Ethiopia, please see http://jveilleux.blogspot.com/2012/10/time-in-ethiopia.html]

Jen: What is the best thing that happened?
Jason: Interacting with the people is the best "thing" in the broad sense. Interpersonal interactions in that area were terrific. I would like to imagine that someone ends up using my research in complex adaptive systems for agriculture in some way. For me, that would be a best result.

Jen: Have you experienced a moment of enlightenment or realization while in the field? How did that happen and did it lead to changes in your research design?
Jason: I tried to guard against "over enthusiastic student syndrome." I failed. I had to scale back my expectations of what I could actually accomplish. However, that isn't a bad thing. In a way, being more constrained has forced me to clarify what I can actually get done. 

I suspect that the lesson of reducing my expectations of what I could actually accomplish in the field applies to all sorts of research. A benefit of scaling back is that I am able to focus my energies on fewer tasks, with the result that I understand the systems much better. Soil erosion dynamics are very complex. Understanding the driving forces behind soil movement requires simplification, which is the point of mapping in my work. With fewer components, it is possible to focus on, say, energy transfer of a raindrop to the soil, instead of getting bogged down in the minutia of soil structure and soil microorganisms. The latter are important, of course, but not as critical to soil movement as the power of a drop of water.


Thank you so much for your time, Jason! God speed in your current degree and I look forward to hearing about how you apply your model to issues for the betterment of more sustainable agricultural practices. This combination of physical and social systems in any question of global development is crucial for future systems management, policy-makers decisions on multiple scales, and planning for current and future water-related challenges. Another great interview about experience in the field!