St. Olaf College | News

Minnesota Academy of Science honors student’s research

CornwallEmma300x400Emma Cornwell ’13 earned top honors for the research poster she recently presented at the Minnesota Academy of Science’s Winchell Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Her poster, titled “The Effects of Different Nitrogen Fertilizer Rates on Soil Characteristics, Plant Properties, and Economic Returns in Southeastern Minnesota Cornfields,” described the project she undertook this fall on two cornfields on the St. Olaf College agricultural lands that are leased by farmer Dave Legvold.

Cornwell studied the environmental and economic effects of nitrogen fertilizer, which is commonly used to increase crop yield. Nitrogen can have serious environmental consequences, often making its way into streams through stormwater runoff and contributing to algae blooms and dead zones in major rivers like the Mississippi.

“I liked the idea of contributing to research about the environmental effects of farming while also helping a local farmer to optimize his economic returns,” Cornwell says.

She worked closely with Legvold to determine the optimum level of nitrogen fertilizer application by looking at soil characteristics, plant properties, crop yield, and economic returns. Legvold is an environmentally conscious farmer and has worked with other St. Olaf students in the past.

Cornwell’s poster presentation was one of two to receive the “best in session” award out of 30 entries at the symposium. Seven other St. Olaf students also presented their research at this year’s meeting.

“There were very few posters dealing with agriculture,” Cornwell says. “In fact, I think most of the other projects with agricultural themes were by St. Olaf students. We have the unique advantage of our location in a rural agricultural community to work with local farmers to perform ‘on-farm’ research, building connections and communication between academia and practical agriculture.”

St. Olaf students have performed well in past years at the symposium.

A ‘natural’ step
Cornwell’s project derives from a long history of agricultural study. Last summer Cornwell, who is majoring in biology and environmental studies, held an undergraduate research position with St. Olaf Professor of Biology Kathy Shea, performing maintenance work on the St. Olaf Natural Lands.

“It was very beneficial for me to have this summer research position, because it allowed me to study the corn fields from the beginning to the end of the growing season,” Cornwell says. She continued to study the fields throughout the fall in an Independent Research project through the Biology Department and through her time working as a student naturalist.

Cornwell’s international background in agricultural development has also guided her project development. During her sophomore year, she spent an Interim in Ecuador working on an organic permaculture farm. She also spent a semester during her junior year in Costa Rica, where she designed and carried out a research project comparing the soil quality of an organic cacao farm to banana and pineapple plantations.

She will spend this summer in her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, interning at Troy Kids’ Garden, where she will work with youth to plant and maintain garden beds and develop healthy nutrition habits.

“I’ve been fortunate to have lots of experience with research, but I’m ready to tackle sustainable food from a different angle,” Cornwell says. “It seems like a natural step.”