By Haley Banwart
Four NASA scholarships; three research projects; two years of interning; one amazing student experience. That sums up Rebecca Meerdink’s college experience.
The senior in environmental science is a four-time winner of the Space Grant Consortium scholarship that gives students the opportunity to experience a personalized research project under the supervision of a faculty member.
Meerdink first learned of the NASA scholarship from her older sister who was also a successful applicant of the award. The scholarship gave Meerdink the oppor- tunity to participate in a series of innovative research projects under the supervision of Amy Kaleita, associate professor in agriculture and biosystems engineering. One such project tested the impact of LED lights on soybean yields, relating to the efforts of growing plants in space.
Meerdink’s most recent project involves studying the frequencies of nitrate, a substance known for playing a large role in water quality impairments. Her goal is to create a reasonably priced sensor that can take real-time measurements of nitrate levels in fields and streams so farmers can better gauge when to apply fertilizers.
“It is my hope that my work will help increase the data pool for farmers and researchers alike,” she says.
Giorgi Chighladze, an agricultural and biosystems engineering research assistant, has been assisting Meerdink with her research.
“Her work advances our research by using radio frequencies to detect chemical footprints that help identify nitrate response. NASA is doing similar work to detect for water on Mars,” Chighladze says.
Meerdink also had the opportunity to intern with the Iowa Learning Farms during the past two summers and gain hands-on experience. She studied the relationships between land use and water by taking field samples to test water quality.
Meerdink traveled across the state of Iowa with a unique fleet of trailers known as the Conservation Station, making appearances at events such as field days, county fairs and farmers markets. The Conservation Station trio is equipped with creative learning modules, simulators and other hands-on activities that demonstrate the importance of practicing good conservation.
Meerdink was trained to give presentations while using the Conservation Station’s educational activities and tools.
“Using effective communication skills was a good challenge for me,” Meerdink says. “It was always encouraging when the kids were enthused and asked good questions or wanted to know more.”
Based on her involvement with both experimental research and educating others about the environment, Meerdink is looking for a career with a blend of fieldwork and public speaking.
“There is still much work to be done to educate the masses,” Meerdink says. “In order to accelerate progress, research must be done to obtain accurate information, which then needs to be effectively communicated to the public.”
Her first step is graduate school. She’s considering programs in agricultural drainage, cover crops, land management and water quality.