Jorja Elliot working on her FHSU MAPS Summer Research Project

Last summer Fort Hays State University (FHSU) offered its first MAPS research experience for undergraduate students under the direction of Dr. Mitch Greer, Assistant Professor of Biological Science at FHSU and research faculty working on the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas (MAPS) project. Majoring in Biology with an emphasis in Botany, Jorja Elliott always had a strong interest in any research related to her major, and when she learned about Dr.Greer’s MAPS REU she thought it “pertained directly to my botanical and agricultural research interests.” Jorja already had research experience working in a laboratory with her mentor, Dr. Brian Maricle, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at FHSU, but this REU added conducting fieldwork to her research skill set.

The title of Jorja’s research project is Impacts of commercial soil microbial additives on growth and performance of wheat and sorghum, and she explained her project as follows: “We aimed to determine if there are increases in plant performance and/or grain production through the use of commercial soil microbial additives above traditional fertilizer applications or if there is a synergistic benefit to use of both for wheat and sorghum.” Her project had three main hypotheses (H): “H1: The addition of fertilizer will increase plant performance and grain production; H2: The addition of a commercial microbial additive would increase plant performance and grain production; and H3: The addition of fertilizer AND a microbial additive would increase plant performance and grain production more than either treatment alone.” To test her hypotheses, she collected “topsoil from the FHSU farm which she also sieved, homogenized, and placed into pots.” She then “planted 5 wheat or 3 sorghum seeds into each pot and applied one of the 9 treatment combinations in a full factorial design consisting of two microbial additive treatments and a control and two fertilizer treatments and a control.” Once the plants were established, she measured their “height, photosynthetic rate, and chlorophyll/nitrogen content with a SPAD meter, and she will assess biomass and grain production at the conclusion of the experiment.” Though at the time of this interview Jorja was still in the process of collecting and analyzing data, she reported, “Preliminary analysis revealed some positive effects related to fertilizer and microbial additive interactions on wheat and sorghum such as influencing the increase in chlorophyll content and plant height.” She continued, “We are still gathering data to investigate the specifics of what is happening, but the addition of soil microbial additives might help plants use fertilizer more efficiently in some cases.” And, she added, “The results of this study may potentially inform farmers as to which additives are most beneficial for increasing plant performance and crop production across the Great Plains.” When asked about her summer experience, Jorja said, “Prior to this research, I worked primarily in a laboratory setting. This experience, however, allowed me to work within a greenhouse and field setting, which I otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do. Plus, this research provided me the opportunity to broaden my botanical knowledge, as well as improve my data collection, data analysis, and presentation skills.”

A native of Pratt, Kansas, Jorja will complete her junior year at FHSU this spring. She is very involved in campus activities serving as Director of Communications for the FHSU Mortar Board Honor Society Golden Chapter, Vice President of Chemistry/Pre-Professional Club and President of National Residence Hall Honorary at FHSU. In addition, she is a member of the FHSU Honors College and the National Society of Leadership and Success.  As for her future, she said “Within the final two years of my undergraduate studies, I plan to continue research alongside Dr. Brian Maricle of the FHSU Biological Sciences Department. With the MAPS funding provided, I will present this research project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington this spring. Depending on additional available funds, I am also seeking opportunities to present at other national meetings, such as the Botanical Society of America (BSA) Annual Meeting in Anchorage, Alaska in the summer of 2020. My plans after getting my undergraduate degree are to attend graduate school and earn a Ph.D. in a biology-related field, most likely a specific field of botany. Ultimately, I would like to land in a career directly tied to botanical research.”

Workforce Development, Education and Outreach funding for the FHSU REU program is provided by the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006 titled: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas. The grant’s workforce development and educational objectives are designed to enhance STEM education in Kansas by supporting activities that will lead to an expanded STEM workforce and prepare a new generation for STEM careers in the areas of aquatic, plant and soil microbiome environments and ecological systems.