Students help increase crop production in Peru

September 4, 2013

A new company started by Arizona State University students will help farmers in Peru, and eventually in other under-developed countries around the world, to cost-effectively increase their crop production with the use of an ancient method of soil improvement called terra preta, or “dark earth.”

Terra preta involves mixing charcoal – or biochar, created from agricultural waste – with natural local fertilizers to create a soil that is very dark and fertile. Biochar improves the soil quality by acting like a sponge, absorbing and storing plant nutrients and soil moisture. Due to the rich charcoal content, the soil also extracts substantial amounts of carbon out of atmosphere, helping prevent global warming. Download Full Image

The company, Growth Alternatives in Action (GAIA), started as an in-class project in the “Make Your Ideas Happen” class at the College of Technology and Innovation, and is now on its way to becoming a nonprofit organization with a global footprint.

“We started with a team of eight students researching the method and the decomposer system that makes biochar,” said Kathleen Stefanik, a junior in the college's industrial and organizational psychology program. “When the class ended, a few of us weren’t ready to leave the project so we took it to the next level.”

This summer, work continued as Stefanik, along with James Nelson, a mechanical engineering major, and Jesus Garcia-Gonzalez, an applied biological science graduate student, developed a prototype of a pyrolizer – the decomposer system that turns agricultural waste into biochar – out of materials that farmers would already have. It was important to the team that the process would be simple, sustainable, reliable and something farmers would be able to construct themselves, without any additional costs or resources.

“It was really encouraging to watch a team of students from different majors and with different strengths come together to tackle an agricultural problem that has global impact,” said Mark Henderson, team mentor and executive director of GlobalResolve, a program in the college with an array of sustainable technology projects in ten developing countries.

“We started by building prototypes of the pyrolizer in the Startup Labs on the Poly campus,” said Stefanik. “What we ended up with was a 55-gallon drum with a lid, with a chimney made out of corrugated aluminum. The total cost of the system was less than $25, but it was made out of materials that most farmers already have access to.”

The team then tested the pyrolizer by making biochar from weeds pulled out of abandoned garden plots at the Poly Community Garden.

“Using the pyrolizer isn’t difficult, but there is a learning curve,” said Stefanik. “You have to know right when to cut the oxygen, otherwise you get ash or weeds that are still green. We quickly realized that knowledge transfer was going to be the most critical step in getting farmers in Peru or other developing countries to implement the terra preta method.”

This June, Garcia-Gonzalez, Henderson, Abiola Doherty, an applied computer science major, and Gerald Polesky, an instructor for the college's technological and entrepreneurship management program, traveled to two small mountain villages in Peru where they worked with local farmers, teaching them how to make and use biochar to improve their income.

“Before we left for Peru, we were able to partner with Andes Libres, a non-profit organization in Peru, to help get a couple of farmers interested in trying terra preta methods so we could test the progress during our visit,” said Garcia-Gonzalez. “When we were on the ground in the community, we worked with more farmers to teach them the method and even taught classes at a local university about the project. Those students were then able to accompany us to one of the communities where we demonstrated how to make the biochar.”

Stefanik says that the test plots that the team helped the farmers to plant should be showing results of the method shortly. The team hopes that the test plot can be used to demonstrate to other local farmers the benefits of using biochar and that over time, other farmers in the area (and hopefully the region) will realize the economic benefits of terra preta.

The GAIA team say they hope to turn their company into an ongoing and sustainable nonprofit that will expand to other global initiatives surrounding agriculture, education and sustainability in the developing world.

“With the right team in place, I know we can continue to help people around the world,” said Stefanik.

Research internship raises student's medical career hopes

September 4, 2013

Juan Laitano is beginning the fall semester with a good jump on the research he will do as part of his pursuit of a master’s degree in biomedical engineering.

Laitano's performance at Arizona State University while earning his undergraduate degree in the field earlier this year led to him to become the first recipient of the Flinn Scholar Summer Internship award. The Flinn Foundation supports the advancement of biosciences in Arizona, in part through the Flinn Scholars Program to help students prepare for careers in health professions. Juan Laitano Flinn Scholar Download Full Image

Winning the internship award enabled Laitano to spend the summer collaborating with researchers at the Arizona Center on Aging and the Interdisciplinary Consortium on Advanced Motion Performance (iCAMP) at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, where he worked under the mentorship of professors Jane Mohler and Bjian Najafi. 

He was prepared for his internship duties by more than a year of research performed in the Neural Control of Movement Laboratory directed by professor Marco Santello, who is also director of the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

During the summer internship, Laitano participated in a project to delineate the biological basis for considering the debilitating physical frailty prevalent among the elderly as a distinct clinical syndrome. The study aimed to biometrically identify the physical characteristics by which health professionals could gauge whether people were in non-frail, pre-frail or frail condition. Beyond that, the goal of the project is to improve diagnosis of the syndrome and devise appropriate treatments for each of the three conditions.

Laitano will continue on this research path at ASU in the hope it will gain him entrance into medical school after earning his graduate degree. He wants to specialize in the emerging area of precision medicine, explaining, “Instead of medicine applied generally, it is medicine tailored to each patient’s specific characteristics.

“It’s not the development of unique treatments or drugs for each patient, but a more precise identification of patients who are susceptible to certain diseases, how they will benefit or not from various medical interventions and how diseases will likely progress in them, all in accordance with their particular situation and characteristics,” he says.

Laitano’s own path to higher education demonstrates his drive to follow his passion. Born and raised in Honduras, he came to Phoenix with his family only seven years ago  after the family had obtained permanent residency status  and immediately set out to get more schooling. He spent two years taking classes at Estrella Mountain Community College and Glendale Community College near Phoenix to prepare for university-level studies. 

After deciding on career path in bioengineering and medicine, and researching the best places available to pursue his goal, he concluded that the biomedical engineering program at ASU “was pretty good.” In 2009, he transferred to ASU, “and I certainly have not been disappointed,” he says.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering