Gemstone students present research to help end hunger

Now at the tail end of a four-year research project, a team of 14 undergraduate students is preparing to share the work they hope will aid researchers in devising a practical solution to end global hunger.

The research program was conceived, planned and implemented by a team of Gemstone students in a project called Maximizing Efficiency of Greenhouses Using Aquaponics. The project received $12,000 from the University Sustainability Council , according to senior mechanical engineering major Eric Kazyak.

Student researchers gave about 15 members of the university community a tour of the greenhouse on the roof of the South Campus Dining Hall that houses bins containing fish and rows of plants used to carry out their experiments.

The goal of the students’ research was to develop efficient techniques of sustainable fish and produce farming, called aquaponics, using resources that could be readily available to people living in rural areas.

Aquaponic systems are dual systems, integrating aquaculture, or fish farming, and hydroponics, the process of growing plants in water without soil. A major component of the team’s research was testing different kinds of fish feed to determine which the fish were able to most efficiently convert into protein. Soy meal was the best.

Beyond that, the team members wanted their aquaponic system to be as energy efficient as possible so that it might be implemented in rural areas that don’t have access to electricity, according to Jessica Lu, a senior physiology and neurobiology major involved with the project. The aquaponic system is self-sustaining; the fish waste provides food to keep the plants alive and the plants naturally filter the water. This means after the initial assembling of the aquaponic system, it requires very few additional resources.

“The fish waste [in the water that filters throughout the system] fertilizes the plants and they, in turn, act as a natural biofilter for the fish,” Lu said. “It’s a very close loop symbiotic system.”

Lu explained that rural communities that rely on farming as a sole food source might be able to implement the team’s system reliably.

The students began the project in their freshman year as part of their Gemstone program, an interdisciplinary research program available to students of all majors. Now seniors, the students are coming to the end of their Gemstone tenure.

“We’ve become really good friends. We come from all different backgrounds just because we’re passionate about sustainable agriculture and this is a topic that’s really interested us,” Lu said.

“It was such a great experience. You really get to know what research is all about,” said Miriam Tarshish, a senior mechanical engineering major.

Adam Louie plans to incorporate the lessons he’s learned about sustainability into his career as an architect.

“Since I’m in architecture, a lot of the work that I’ve done here has really influenced my work already,” he said.

Kazyak said he plans to carry out research in the alternative energy field as a career and Lu said she the group hopes to bring aquaponics beyond cities.

“Aquaponics is a very hot topic. It’s already used in very high-tech urban areas,” Lu said.

“We wanted to bring that down to a more subsistence level for developing rural areas because in those areas you may not have access to electricity or a source of water.”

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