Sophomore Brandon Erny has been selected by the Composting Council Research and Education Foundation (CCREF) to receive the Young Investigator Scholarship, a $2500 research award established to recognize an outstanding full-time student whose research and interests are focused on composting.
Erny, who has been dubbed “Captain Compost” thanks to his Sterling College work position as the campus compost manager, had his research selected from a field of seventeen applications, from undergraduate through PhD students. His research project is entitled “Investigating the use of biochar to increase nutrient retention in compost-production, and following compost spreading.” His research will test the role of biochar—charcoal used for soil amendment purposes—on retaining soil nutrients that normally escape in the compost process.
Faculty member Dr. Laura Spence said of the award, “I was really happy to learn that Brandon had won the CCREF Young Investigator’s Scholarship. He is an energetic and enthusiastic student and will really make the most of this opportunity.”
She continued, “Brandon is passionate about the use of scientific inquiry to promote sustainability in farming. He is particularly fascinated by the role of soil microorganisms in agricultural systems, and how they can be optimally managed to promote yields and reduce disease. This scholarship is a real fillip to his pursuit of knowledge, to the composting operations here at Sterling, and to the wider community’s understanding of optimizing compost production to maximize nutrient retention.”
Erny is thrilled by the award, and startled as well. He describes the process of applying for the scholarship as “super-hectic.”
“I found out about it the night before Expedition,” he explained. Expedition is the capstone to the Experiential Education I class at Sterling College, and is a four-day, three-night winter hike in the Lowell Mountains. “I got email from [faculty members] Rick [Thomas], Laura Spence, then Gwyneth [Harris] and Adrian [Owens] saying ‘you should do this,’ so I sat down and read about it, and I find out it’s due the next day.”
Scrambling to complete an abstract that was, as Erny describes it, “interesting enough and diverse enough,” was challenging, but the tight deadline and the tough winter camping trip ahead of him made it even more harrowing. “It was so hectic, but it was fulfilling!” he said.
Research starts “ASAP,” says Erny. The first step to complete, in conjunction with faculty members Gwyneth Harris, Laura Spence, and Charlotte Rosendahl, will be to cover a field with rye and vetch, to add biomass to the surface of the soil. The next step involves “getting as much woody materials as possible, because we’re making our own biochar,” said Erny. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to do.” The project will last until Spring of 2016.
Erny, who is considering using this research as a stepping stone for his senior applied research project, is self-designing a major in sustainable design and carpentry. He feels this project is “interdisciplinary. It’s a pretty big area to explore…this not only helps me in organization and leadership, but [I] get to focus in on something I really, really like.”