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How Plant Science Can Grow Small Business

Wed, 01/20/2016 - 2:39pm
Story Contacts: 

Faith Schwartz

UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences


UA mushroom experts are teaching a workshop on how to raise mushrooms — a highly lucrative crop.

An effort to teach potential farmers in Arizona how to sustain an easy-to-grow, nutritious and lucrative crop is mushrooming.

Supported in part by a $37,000 Arizona Department of Agriculture grant, University of Arizona mushroom specialist Barry Pryor and instructional specialist Thom Plasse have been teaching a new public workshop on how to grow edible fungi — mushrooms, one of the more lucrative crops in the U.S.

"For a very small footprint, people can make a lot of money," said Pryor, a plant pathology and microbiology professor in the School of Plant Sciences, housed in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "It's great for small-business development."

Mushrooms are a robust crop. They can produce steep yields with a tiny footprint. Pryor estimates that with a plot at about 25 feet by 15 feet, a person could make about $50,000 in profits annually from a mushroom crop.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in August that the value of all mushroom sales for the 2014-2015 crop totaled $1.23 billion, which was up 10 percent over the previous season. The agency also reported an increase in the number of mushroom growers, now at 354.

"In the U.S., there are only a few crops that have higher market value than mushrooms.  It is an industry that’s growing in all states,” said Pryor, who also has an appointment with UA Cooperative Extension. 

Public outreach is a central tenet for Cooperative Extension, which takes science produced by the University community to the general population throughout the state.

About 25 people participated in the first workshop Pryor and Plasse led on Jan. 13 at Cooperative Extension's Tucson Village Farm. Other workshops are currently being planned.

Mushroom production is promising because the crop can be vertically organized. Also, it is not a difficult crop to nurture.

"People aren't aware how accessible mushroom growing can be," Plasse said. "It's relatively easy once the infrastructure is in place."

The infrastructure is basically a misting system with a small shed (or an enclosed area) and a swamp cooler. 

Tucson Village Farm's mushroom shed is cooled by a solar-powered evaporative cooler, and the misting system uses collected rainwater. The "substrate," or growing medium, needs to be soaked in water before growing; otherwise, mushrooms do not need much water to thrive.

Mushrooms also are being grown in a "hoop house," which is somewhat like a greenhouse or a controlled environment, at the Campus Agricultural Center.

UA student members of a club Pryor launched, called the MycoCats, help bag the substrate containing growing mushrooms. The mushrooms are then produced in the temperature- and humidity-controlled environment of the hoop house. Students are able to work as interns as well as in the lab as members of MycoCats to gain real-world work experience. Some may even go on to be mushroom farmers.

Yet some drawbacks exist, as mushrooms are highly perishable, which can make shipping across long distances difficult. 

Pryor says when mushrooms arrive in a grocery store, they often are broken and old and may not be as flavorful. Being closer to the source is better all around, he said.

"Local production means better quality for the consumer," Pryor said.

For those involved in the workshop, class participants leave ready to produce for local consumers.

"Fungi are microbes, so the cultures can be easily contaminated. So, while growing mushrooms is profitable, it requires a little more technical expertise," Pryor said. "Mushroom production is different than, say, growing watermelons from a seed."

Workshop participants learn about the biology of mushrooms, which are nutritional powerhouses high in vitamin D, protein and antioxidants. Different metabolites in mushrooms fight heart disease and cancer.

Each participant receives an active mushroom culture that they transferred, as well as a substrate bag fully colonized by oyster mushrooms, to take home. Also, workshop participants are able to transfer oyster mushroom cultures into a petri dish and learn about sterile technique.

One class participant, Tucson resident Petra Barten, has loved mushrooms all her life.

"In my childhood, I picked a lot of mushrooms with my family, family on both sides, overseas and in this country," Barten said. "I just love mushrooms and want to learn more about them."

Barten added that she plans to grow mushrooms at home with her knowledge from the workshop, noting that it was "so much more than what I was expecting."

Category(s): Science and TechnologyFaith SchwartzJanuary 29, 2016UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

UA at the Forefront as Climate Change Heats Up

Tue, 01/19/2016 - 3:37pm
This year's College of Science Lecture Series, "Earth Transformed," will showcase UA researchers' expertise on climate change and its implications for the planet. ENVIRONMENT

What is the UA's role in the climate change conversation?
The UA is an expert on global climate change and adaptation and is a location for two regional climate research centers for the U.S. government. It sent a delegation to the recent United Nations COP21 climate change conference in Paris.

Why is climate change important?
Climate change remains a pressing global issue, with the potential to have significant impact on the environment, human health, food security and more. UA research in these areas can help inform policies and solutions.

Who should attend the "Earth Transformed" lecture series?
The free series is for anyone interested in learning more about the climate change problem and solutions — and the UA's expertise.

  "Earth Transformed" will kick off on Monday and run through March 7 at Centennial Hall. Joellen Russell will launch the lecture series with a talk on the planet's warming oceans. Jonathan Overpeck will wrap up the series with a talk on "The Changing Earth: It's Not Just a New Normal."

The University of Arizona, an international leader in global climate change research, will share its scientists' expertise with the community during the College of Science Lecture Series, "Earth Transformed."

The popular series, which kicks off Monday and runs through March 7, again is expected to play to capacity crowds at the UA's Centennial Hall. It will include six lectures on climate change and its impact on Earth today and in the future. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the lectures start at 7. The talks will be streamed live by Arizona Public Media On Demand.

Topics range from the ocean's role in climate change, which Joellen Russell, associate professor of geosciences, will address in the first lecture, to the impact of climate change on health and food security.

"It is important that we all understand what we know about global climate change and what we can do about it," said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science.

The timing of the series couldn't be better, coming on the heels of the UA's presence at the 2015 United Nations COP21 climate change conference held in late 2015 in Paris. Seven representatives of the University participated in the conference.

Understanding the Problem, Working on Solutions

The UA's expertise on climate change is broad and varied, with dozens of researchers in various colleges working on the issue in some way. Their ongoing efforts will be among the top stories to watch in 2016.

While many are dedicated to the science behind the change, others are interested in the ins and out of climate-related policymaking and the social implications of climate change. Some are leveraging arts and humanities to communicate the issue.

Russell said she is excited to share her knowledge and talk about how the UA has become a leader on climate change — and what researchers are doing to think ahead.

Her lecture will address the amount of heat the ocean is absorbing from the atmosphere and how the ocean's uptake of heat has affected sea creatures and plant life.

"The ocean keeps warming every year without fail," Russell said. "But that's not the only thing the ocean is doing for us. If all of the heat in the ocean from just the warming over the last 30 years was put back into the atmosphere, we would be 100 degrees warmer. The ocean is like a big air conditioner, just sucking up tons of the heat that would otherwise be making us hotter."

Jonathan Overpeck, co-director of the UA's Institute of the Environment, will talk on "The Changing Earth: It's Not Just a New Normal," which will conclude the series.

While climate change is a serious issue, Overpeck said he wants to talk about optimism around the topic.

He said he believes there will be much economic growth in the Southwest as part of a switch to renewable energy, which will in turn create more jobs. He also said there will be ideas for adapting to climate change that the Southwest can export.

"I want to make sure everyone in the room leaves not depressed but optimistic of our ability to solve these problems," said Overpeck, Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Professor of Science and a Regents' Professor of Geosciences and Atmospheric Sciences in the College of Science.

Ruiz said he hopes the audience comes away from the lectures with new information and a desire to learn more.

"I get really excited about three things," Ruiz said. "One (reason) is our speakers presenting what we know of the particular topic, and that makes me really proud because we have fantastic faculty. Second is the response from our community. Our community is sucking it up, and that's not everywhere where that happens. We live in a special place."

The third thing that excites Ruiz, he says, is new programming designed to educate and involve students in the lecture series.

Engaging Students in the Conversation

New to the series this year will be follow-up question-and-answer sessions in which UA students will be able to interact directly with the lecturers.

Instructors across campus are encouraging students to view a live stream of the lectures at the University's Environment and Natural Resources 2, or ENR2, building. After the lecturers finish their presentations in Centennial Hall, they will head to ENR2 to answer students' questions in a feature called QA Science.

"We felt that the issue of climate change is most relevant to the generation now attending the UA," said John Pollard, associate professor of practice in the UA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, who will facilitate the QA Science discussions along with Ed Prather, associate professor of astronomy, and Lisa Elfring, associate professor of molecular and cellular biology and of chemistry and biochemistry and a member of the BIO5 Institute.

The sessions build on the concept of Pollard's "Selected Topics for Science Educators" course for K-12 teachers, which for the past five years has engaged local educators in the lecture series with the goal of helping them incorporate the topics in their own classrooms.

As in years past, about 20 K-12 teachers will attend the talks and have the opportunity to ask questions of the presenters afterward. This year, UA students from varying majors will pose questions, as well.

"We hope they take away an awareness of where we're at with this issue, and that we have some really top-notch scientists here at the UA working on this problem," Pollard said. "I also hope they become reflective about their daily lives and how they can develop more sustainable habits."

The "Earth Transformed" series will showcase the tip of the iceberg in UA climate change research, which spans the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, public health and the arts.

"We are a center for excellence for climate research, and climate negotiations are always dependent on the latest science — natural science and social science," said Diana Liverman, co-director of the UA Institute of the Environment and a Regents' Professor in the School of Geography and Development.

In the fall, Liverman led a delegation from the UA — including two other faculty members, three graduate students and an undergraduate — to the climate change conference in Paris, where they attended and participated as experts in panels and discussions, observed negotiations, and hosted an information booth with Arizona State University to share the latest climate research and publications from Arizona.

At the conference, a global pact known as the Paris Agreement was negotiated that makes a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius.

'We Work in This Area'

The University is uniquely positioned to support efforts to meet that goal, Liverman said.

"It was clear in Paris that a lot of countries could reduce fossil fuel emissions through solar energy, and we work in this area," she said.

However, we still need to find ways to live in a warmer world, Liverman said.

The University is a global leader in climate adaptation and how communities can adjust to warmer and drier living conditions. It already is a location for two regional climate research centers for the U.S. government: the Department of the Interior's Southwest Climate Science Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Assessment for the Southwest, or CLIMAS. In addition, the University's Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions brings together faculty from across campus to work on adaptation.

"The U of A has enormous potential to help Arizona and the world cope with a changing climate," Liverman said. "We connect climate science to solutions and decisions and share our insights into living sustainably in warm, arid environments."

For more information about "Earth Transformed," visit the series website. The schedule of lectures:

  • Jan. 25 | Joellen Russell, "Ocean's Role in Climate: Heat and Carbon Uptake in the Anthropocene"
  • Feb. 1 | David Battisti (University of Washington), "Climate Change and Global Food Security"
  • Feb. 8 | Russell Monson, "Ecosystem Resilience: Navigating Our Tenuous Connection to Nature"
  • Feb. 22 | Kacey Ernst, "Climate Change and Human Health: Impacts and Pathways to Resilience"
  • Feb. 29 | Kimberly Ogden, "Carbon Sequestration: Can We Afford It?"
  • March 7 | Jonathan Overpeck, "The Changing Earth: It's Not Just a New Normal"

UANews is exploring six stories to watch as 2016 begins. Previously in this series:

Health & Medicine: The asthma research of Dr. Fernando Martinez 

Big Data: The UA's expanded role in turning data into discovery

Humanities: In February, a visit from Shakespeare's touring First Folio

Category(s): Science and TechnologyAmy Williams and Alexis BlueJanuary 20, 2016University Relations - Communications

From Inception to Innovation, Hack Arizona Is All About Ideas

Fri, 01/15/2016 - 10:43am
Extra Info: 

Three types of prizes will be awarded at Hack Arizona:

  • Sponsor prizes, which are chosen by the representatives of the sponsor and awarded based on their own, varying criteria.
  • Category prizes, which are awarded by the Hack Arizona team. Each team winning a category will receive a Raspberry Pi 2 Canakit for each team member.
  • The grand prize, which is selected by the Hack Arizona organizers. The winners will receive a secret prize, which will be disclosed on the event's first day.
What: Hack ArizonaWhen: Jan. 22-24Where: UA Science-Engineering Library, 744 N. Highland Ave. Story Contacts: 

Nick Morin

Hack Arizona

The organizers of the second Hack Arizona, to be held at the UA, affirm that programming experience isn't required to be an innovator.

To encourage original thought and inventiveness, and after a successful inaugural year, Hack Arizona — the largest student-run hackathon in the Southwest — will return with more participants, more sponsors and more volunteers.

The free event, open to undergraduate and graduate students in all academic programs from across the country, provides a competitive space at the University of Arizona for teams to develop and build websites, cloud software, robotics, Web and iOS apps, and other creations. Students can apply online.

"Innovations in hacking are what power the technology we use everyday," said Hack Arizona marketing director Nick Morin, a UA School of Information senior majoring in eSociety.

At least 800 participants are expected to attend this year's event, which is offered through a partnership between InnovateUA and the UA Libraries, as well as dozens of national and international corporate sponsors.

Members of the general public are invited to attend the Project Exposition, to be held on Jan. 24, from 9 a.m. to 12:15 p.m, in the Grand Ballroom of the Student Union Memorial Center. During that time, projects will be on display and award winners will be named on Jan. 25 on the Hack Arizona website.

Hack Arizona does not reference or endorse malicious or illegal cyber crime. Rather, "hacking" refers to the work of inventors, builders and creators who spend 36 hours in solution-oriented mode coming up with an answer to a problem or challenge.

"Hacking simply means improving upon something, so by encouraging innovations in hacking, you are really encouraging people to solve problems," said Morin, who is also InnovateUA's senior director.

This year, Hack Arizona participants will build design innovations around sustainability, health, community, data science and open source resources.

Participants also learn about new software and technologies, attend instructional and active workshops, collaborate across disciplines and receive free meals and entertainment.

"Immediately after the first Hack Arizona, our team went back to the white board asking how we could make the next event even better," Morin said. "Our main focus this year centers around the hacker experience, the core value we bring to all of our participants, from the minute they arrive at opening ceremony to the event conclusion on Sunday."

UA alumni who now work with companies such as Google also will be on site during the hackathon to mentor and support teams. Other event sponsors, which also will be offering demonstrations of their technologies and products, include Raytheon, Cisco, Intuit and Amazon.

"At Hack Arizona, the most talented students from across campus and across the globe are converging at the University of Arizona," said Justin Williams, executive director of InnovateUA, an organization that supports and fosters a student-led culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

"The talented student leaders behind Hack Arizona and all InnovateUA programs are an essential reason why the UA is recognized as a world leader in innovation," said Williams, also a lecturer in the UA Eller College of Management and College of Engineering.

Last year's 450 Hack Arizona participants produced nearly 70 projects, including a text-based system to help language learners practice and a robot that taught itself to take steps while using only minor instruction from a basic mathematical algorithm.

"Hack Arizona is not only a hackathon but a learning experience, a resume booster, a way to get involved, a way to meet company sponsors, a way to get a job or an internship, a way to work on team-building skills," Hack Arizona organizer Brittany Paielli, a UA student studying mathematics and computer science, said in a statement. "It can bring you one step closer to being more successful in the future."

Hack Arizona's team contributed to this article.

Category(s): Science and TechnologyLa Monica Everett-HaynesJanuary 15, 2016University Relations - Communications

UA Sociologists: Teen Pregnancy Not an Isolated Issue

Wed, 01/13/2016 - 12:57pm
Extra Info: 

Christina Diaz's and Jeremy E. Fiel’s research was funded by multiple agencies and organizations, including the Ford Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship and the Center of Demography and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. 

Story Contacts: 

Christina Diaz

UA School of Sociology



Jeremy E. Fiel 

UA School of Sociology


Christina Diaz and Jeremy E. Fiel found that socioeconomic disadvantage may reduce the effect young motherhood has on how successful a person is academically, and also what wages can be expected in the future.

In a nationwide study, University of Arizona sociologists Christina Diaz and Jeremy E. Fiel found that the negative effect of young motherhood on educational attainment and earnings is not limited to those from disadvantaged backgrounds and actually is most significant among better-off teenagers.

Diaz and Fiel analyzed a subset of the Child and Young Adult Cohorts of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which launched in 1986 to analyze the lives of more than 10,000 American youth.

Their findings of the subset — more than 3,600 young women — confirm existing literature that most young mothers have lower educational attainment and earnings overall compared with those who delay having children.

However, they also found that the impact of early fertility on one's educational attainment and wages depended on a woman’s personal attributes, experiences and factors such as their household income and familial expectations around family planning.

"It is important to think about the ongoing debate about the causal relationship between teen pregnancy and attainment," said Diaz, an assistant professor in the UA School of Sociology.

"Despite all of our methods and studies, we (as a research community) haven’t nailed down the effect of teenage pregnancy. So, we wanted to take a step back and think, 'Why might there be divergent findings?'"

Diaz's and Fiel’s findings are detailed in the co-authored paper "The Effect(s) of Teen Pregnancy: Reconciling Theory, Methods and Findings," which was published in a January 2016 issue of Demography, a peer-reviewed journal. Fiel is a UA assistant professor of sociology.

For the investigation, Diaz and Fiel analyzed survey results from two groups: individuals who became pregnant and had children, and others who had yet to do so.

Diaz and Fiel wanted to understand variation in the effects of early fertility among women with differing likelihoods of teen pregnancy and childbearing. For both groups, they analyzed high school graduation rates, rates of college attendance and completion, and also earnings when respondents were between ages 25 and 35. 

Some of Diaz's and Fiel's findings confirmed other existing research indicating that pregnant teenagers have more disadvantaged backgrounds, fewer academic skills, more behavior problems and delinquency, and lower feelings of self-worth. 

"By the time a young woman becomes pregnant, there are already factors from her socioeconomic background that influence her experience," Diaz said. "To that end, it is not necessarily the pregnancy itself that results in negative consequences. And for someone who is comparatively better off, they already have tools to succeed."

Interestingly, it was those better-off teens for whom the consequences of an early pregnancy were most severe. The negative effect on earning a bachelor's degree was twice as large among better-off teens compared to those who were less advantaged.

Diaz and Fiel found evidence suggesting that young women in families where early fertility was more common, and who had stronger familial relationships and support, may have experienced less stress transitioning into motherhood.

Such findings reveal the problem with assuming that all women see similar outcomes when having children at a younger age, Diaz and Fiel said.

The two affirmed in their paper that "women differentially respond to motherhood," later noting: "Specifically, we argue that negative, trivial or positive effects could be simultaneously occurring among different types of women in the population."

While nationwide data indicates that teen pregnancies among women ages 15-19 has been on a steady decline since the 1970s, the World Bank reports the nation still maintains some of the highest rates on the globe. Based on 2014 figures, the financial institution reported that the U.S. had more births per 1,000 women in that age bracket than those that include the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France and Spain.

From a policy perspective, the findings can help to better identify how to support teen mothers who need it most, Diaz said.

"There are a lot of campaigns that set out to reduce pregnancy rates in disadvantaged communities that are based on the belief that there are still negative causal effects of teen pregnancy," Diaz said.

The analysis, however, suggested that teen pregnancy prevention in isolation of other life challenges is likely to be ineffective for disadvantaged women. Such campaigns may be beneficial only for more advantaged women, Diaz said.

"There are all these underlying issues that happened before pregnancy — attending lower-quality schools, living in poor neighborhoods, living in high poverty contexts — so that teen pregnancy is just one issue," she said.

Category(s): Social Sciences and EducationLa Monica Everett-HaynesJanuary 20, 2016University Relations - Communications