How COVID-19 Has Impacted the OSU Garden Ecology Lab

I asked our group if they would be willing to share how COVID-19 is impacting their science, their studies, and their life. Our collective reflections can be found, below.

Gail Langellotto, Professor and Statewide Master Gardener Coordinator: In early February, I woke up from a dream, sobbing. I had dreamt that my parents were sick in Baltimore, but that domestic air travel had been shut down. I am not an expert in the ecology of infectious disease, but I used to teach infectious disease models to pre-meds. And, there were several things that I saw in reports of this emerging disease that greatly troubled me. Unfortunately, my fears of large scale community spread have come true, and life has changed for us all. Luckily, my parents and sisters continue to be healthy, even though they live in a COVID-19 hotspot.

I teach two face-to-face entomology courses at OSU during the spring term: ENT 311 and ENT/HORT 444/544. I had exactly one week to pivot these classes to fully remote offerings. Instead of real time (and automated) assessment of learning using TopHat, I’m building quizzes and assignments into Canvas, where I am manually grading 210 quizzes and assignments per week. I’ve drastically cut down on course content, in part because I continue to try and focus on essential messaging, but also because I know that many of my students are under immense stress.

Spring term is when I normally move to having a lighter touch with the Master Gardener Program. New Master Gardener students are completing their coursework and exams. Long-time Master Gardeners move their attention to plant sales, garden fairs, and educational outreach. Not this year. Training classes had to move online or to Zoom. Plant sales, garden fairs, and other Master Gardener events were cancelled. Our working group started trading resources and ideas via weekly Zoom meetings. Each new dictate from the Governor or the University requires attention and consideration of how it applies to the Master Gardener Program. It’s been a challenge to stay on top of everything, and a challenge to keep a positive attitude.

In terms of science, there has been good and bad. The ‘bad’ is that, as an Associate Editor of the journal Urban Ecosystems, it has been difficult to find peer reviewers for scientific manuscripts. And, it feels ‘out of touch’ to prod folks to get their reviews in, when they may be sick, or they may be busy home-schooling kids or shopping for senior family members. Also in the ‘bad’, I generally have zero time or energy to work on my own scientific manuscripts. Exhaustion is a constant. The ‘good’ is that I can’t sleep at night. And, during these sleepless nights, I often think about next steps in our research, and plotting out key questions in urban ecology that remain unresolved, but could be addressed in garden systems.

Gail’s workstation at home. The photo of the bear and fish (to the right) is named ‘A meditation on perspective’. When working, I often stop to tell myself ‘be the bear, not the fish’.

Angelee Calder, senior year June 2020, Agricultural Science undergraduate: Covid has greatly impacted my plans and life!  As some of you may remember from my last blog post, I was expecting to spend my final term as a senior at Oregon State University doing an internship in Costa Rica! Twelve days before I was scheduled to leave, we entered a worldwide pandemic and all my plans where flipped and turned upside down! In preparation to leave for Costa Rica, I had put in my 30 day notice in on my apartment and my roommate found somewhere else to live. Last minute, I had to scramble to get my refunds, register for classes, and find somewhere to live. Since then, I have been struggling with homelessness.

Currently, I am living in the emergency housing at OSU provided by the Human Resources and Services Center. While I am extremely thankful to be here, I am only permitted to stay for less than a month. Which means my struggle with homelessness during my final term of school will continue to be an issue well into finals week. I started my first term at OSU homeless and I am finishing my final term homeless! While this is stressful and uncertain, I have managed to continue to kill this term academically. I am proud of myself for prevailing during these hard times to thrive under these heavy pressures and keep my eyes on the prize of my diploma that I have worked 5 long years to earn.

My passion for agriculture and my dedication to school go unwavered. This time has helped me to feel more secure in my chosen field as Agriculture than I ever have before. After seeing the bare shelves at the store and hundreds of thousands of Americans get laid off of their jobs, I realize agriculture is about as “essential” as you can get! My passions and education can not only create stable work for myself but also can help the rest of the world through these difficult times with stable sustainable food production.

Angelee’s workstation at the OSU Human Services Resource Center.

Mericos Rhodes, M.A. Student in Environmental Arts and Humanities. As a practitioner of ecological agriculture, this COVID era is one of the most interesting times of my life. Put simply, I have never witnessed such intense interest in what is, to me, the most interesting topic in the world: local ecological farming.

The farm that I help run, Spoon Full Farm, has completely sold out of CSA memberships and many other items. Our waitlist is growing. Here in Corvallis, the farmers markets are well-adjusted and well-attended. I can understand why: a shorter food chain means far fewer opportunities for food to be contaminated. Healthy nutrient-dense food is a cornerstone of resilient health. Small businesses such as local farms need our support now, more than ever.

In an exciting development, a friend and I are busy converting an old grassy field, across from the Corvallis Fairgrounds, into a small-scale community-based farm. We connected with the landowner after he put up a sign at the co-op seeking farmers! So, our restorative farming project has begun! It doesn’t look like much, but we have 7 chickens moving rapidly through the grass between our dug rows of mixed perennials (mostly currant bushes and thyme), fertilizing the ground to support annual vegetable beds. We plan to dig a little pond and use a heavy mulch of leaves and/or wood chips.

The Corvallis field that Mericos and his partner are converting into a farm.

How is this relevant to the garden ecology lab? In two ways:
First, I am planning my graduate project to be a narrative introduction to ecological farming (stories, characters, motives will be highlighted). This personal experience will be part of the story. Second, this project will put into place many practices suggested by Gail’s Insect Agroecology class (ENT 544), which I am currently taking, including creating diverse perennial habitat for insects, and not spraying pesticides or synthetic nitrogen. It will also be an experiment in “Dry-Farming,” which basically means zero irrigation – perhaps a critical farming technique here in the Northwest, where irrigation water may be in much shorter supply, in the decades to come.

I feel extremely grateful to be able to work outside, with living nature, during these times when so many are stuck in screen world, all day every day.

Aaron Anderson, PhD Candidate: During this uncertain time, I feel lucky to be able to be part of the Garden Ecology Lab and be able to continue my classes and work. As I am in my fourth year as a graduate student here at OSU, I have already collected all of my field data. This means that I am able to hunker down at my desk here at home, without having to worry about the logistics of conducting fieldwork during a pandemic. I’ve been busy taking two courses, and also plugging away on some data entry and statistical work.

Things can be undeniably stressful due to the background worries about COVID-19, but working from home has had some plus sides. The first is the ability to work with a cuddly cat on my lap. I’ve also been able to take breaks out in the yard, where we’ve been working on our garden bed and also seeded the side yard with several native plants from my study. We have Phacelia heterophyla just starting to germinate, and Clarkia amoena and Achillea millefolium are both beginning to bolt. Hopefully, some native bees will be visiting soon!

Aaron’s cat.
Aaron’s side garden.

Signe Danler, Instructor, online Master Gardener training course: As an instructor of an online course, most of my work was already done online via computer before the pandemic hit. I have also worked from home for many years in a variety of jobs, so I already had a full office set up at home, and did much of my OSU work at home already. In this regard, there was not much change – I grabbed a few things from my office at OSU so I would have them at home, and have not been on the campus since the stay-at-home order.

Nevertheless, life suddenly became much more stressful. For the first few weeks, the constant bombardment of new and conflicting information was terribly distracting, making it hard to be productive on any project requiring sustained effort. The cancellation of virtually all events I normally participate in has been saddening and frustrating. With two vulnerable family members at home, we have to exercise great caution in outside contacts. I not only have to do all grocery shopping, but do it in a way that takes much longer than usual, and is tiring and stressful. I’m keeping trips out very infrequent!

All in all, though, I feel we are very fortunate, since we are in a position to ride this situation out with minimal problems. To stay healthy and sane I’ve been taking more walks, which is easy since we live at the edge of town and crowds are non-existent. My large garden is getting more attention than usual, and I’m propagating more of my own plants to reduce nursery visits. As I have adjusted to the new normal, my ability to focus is getting back to normal too, and I am confident we’ll get through it just fine. 

Signe’s Plant starts.

Mykl Nelson, Instructor of Urban Agriculture: The first thing I noticed was how much remained the same. I was already fully remote and integrated with eCampus. I was lucky. I watched the flurry of emails, the hectic conference meetings, the string of popular articles. Everyone seemed to scramble as essentially the entire academic world pushed to move fully online and remote. I’m excited to see this push because I hope to see advancement in the teaching of remote teachers. When I first started trying to educate myself about educating others in agricultural topics in a remote classroom, I saw very little supporting material. I hope that changes now.

I’ve seen real changes in the community around me. Store shelves lay bare as a slow realization—the façade of abundance—spreads across stores. I know from my time as a grocery clerk that those shelves aren’t stocked that deep, and the “back stock” is kept as thin as possible. I’m watching my country get squeezed around me; the most vulnerable of my fellow citizens being forced to confront the more dire aspects of this pandemic. 

But in this panic, I feel safe. I get to add yet another scenario to the privileged category of my life. From my youth in a military family to my time now as university faculty, I am repeatedly shown the benefits of access to health care. When it comes to basic hygiene and global health, I want everyone to be able to wash their hands just as easily as they could access medicine. It only makes sense to extend such secure foundations to as many people as possible.

Mykl’s workstation in Central Oregon.

From the Lab to Your Laptop: Getting Research to the Public

The members of the Garden Ecology lab spend much of their time on research into subjects that affect, what else, the ecology of home gardens. Pollinators and their relations with native and non-native plants, bee variety and abundance in gardens, and soil nutrient levels, are among the topics they are delving into.

One of the challenges for the lab members – and for all scientists – is how to get the results of their research into the hands of people who can use it. Scientific papers are the traditional way, but not many people actually read those, and it can take a long time for research to trickle out from papers to the general public. If you read this blog, you’ve discovered one of the ways current research is disseminated quickly, and you’re learning new ideas that you may be able to implement in your own research or gardening.

Science you can use in your garden

Another way research gets to the public is through teaching. Lab members present new data in lectures, interviews, presentations, workshops and classes, including OSU Extension’s Online Master Gardener training, which I teach. Each year the course reaches around 40 Oregon MG trainees, plus another 60 or so horticulturally-minded people who take the course simply to improve their garden knowledge. In addition, our single-subject Short Courses are accessed by several thousand people per year. So any new research I can include in these courses can potentially reach hundreds or thousands (depending on the subject) of gardeners per year, who in turn may influence other gardeners.

With this in mind, I have cited Mykl Nelson’s research on excessive nutrient levels in managed vegetable garden soils to caution students about the perils of over-fertilizing. In 2020, my new module on Gardening with Pacific Northwest Native Plants will be influenced by Aaron’s data on the native flowers most favored by native pollinators. His research, plus other research taking place elsewhere, is showing that just planting a garden of pollinator-attracting plants may not be the best tactic to help native pollinators. A garden full of bees is often, really, a garden full of honey bees. What about all the native bees that are less visible, but at least as important? Aaron Anderson’s research into which plant species attract which bee species is beginning to show that the plants most attractive to honey bees are generally not the same as those most attractive to native bees.

Native bee on a native rose
Honeybees on non-native sunflower

The takeaway? Gardeners who want to support pollinators can take the extra step of searching out and growing native plants that are especially attractive to native bees, in addition to the many flowers that honey bees frequent. This is what I will be teaching my Master Gardener trainees in Oregon, and the rest of my students all over the country; many of them will in turn teach other people. Bit by bit the new information gets out there, and more native bees may find the flowers they need to thrive.

How Alan Alda Helped Me to Become a Better Teacher

A few weeks ago, I tweeted about the difference that the Alda Center for Communicating Science has made in my teaching. To my sincere surprise and delight, Mr. Alda, himself, quoted my tweet, in one of his own. It made my day.

And today, after my last lecture of the term, the lab instructor sent me this note:

“I have students here putting in extra time (!!) on their [insect] collections, and they’re talking about how much they loved your class, and the applause you got at the end of class today. One of them is saying how it’s about time she had a class that was 100% relevant to Ag. I’m so happy for you, Gail, . . . I wish you could hear their conversation 🙂 “

To fully appreciate how much these comments mean to me, you have to understand how much of a struggle it is for me to teach. I score very high on the introversion scale. I hate the idea of teaching as performance (why do I have to entertain them?). I’m a stickler for academic rigor. My classes have a reputation for being difficult. And, I teach a required course that all majors must take (whether they are interested in entomology, or not), that is scheduled for M/W/F at 8am. All of these things, added together, make me a fairly unpopular teacher.

But this term was different. In January, I spent two days in New York City for the Alda Center for Communicating Science STEM immersion program. This workshop could not have come at a better time in my professional career. I was burnt out, in part because of: (a) the corporatization of higher education, (b) students who increasingly take a customer-centered approach to their education (where the customer is always right), (c) attacks on and rollbacks of scientific progress at Federal Agencies, and (d) public distrust of science. These things have all taken their toll on me and on my love for my profession. I was looking for something to re-ignite my love for science and teaching, and to stave off my growing cynicism.

The Alda immersion program did all of these things, and more. The premise of the workshop is that ‘Connection is the Key’ to effective science communication. The workshop instructors (including Alan Alda) use improv exercises in small groups and with partners to teach storytelling, message design, and how to really listen to, empathize with, and engage with your audience. Key messages were embraced over the recitation of hypotheses and theory. A heavy focus was put on connecting with your audience, so that even if they were not ready to listen to you in that moment of time, you might be able engage them at some point in the future.

There were two turning points to the workshop, at least for me.

The first was when we partnered up with someone to explain our science in 2 minutes, then 1 minute, then 30 seconds. Between each round, our partner gave us feedback on how to refine our message. When we came back together as a group, each person had to explain their partner’s science, rather than their own. In almost all cases, folks did better explaining someone else’s science ~ because we didn’t get bogged down in details. This really helped me to limit how much information I present in my classes. Instead of teaching *everything a person should possibly know* about a topic, I focus on key points, and how those points relate to students’ lives.

The second was when Mr. Alda demonstrated how he would discuss science with someone who believes the earth is flat. There was such a genuine kindness in the ‘conversation’ he had with the flat-earther ~ acknowledging their experience (the earth looks flat to them) while adhering to the science that demonstrates that earth is a sphere. It made me realize that I had become so accustomed to being right and defending my interpretation of science, that I rarely listened to others who disagreed with me. I was too busy formulating my retort, to truly listen to and understand their perspective.

This revelation was coupled with an exercise that was called ‘My Dear Friend’. In this exercise, you spend a few minutes ranting at your partner about something that drives you crazy. I ranted about the state of higher education, today. Your partner then has to share your rant with the group, by saying something like ‘this is my dear friend, Gail, and she cares passionately about the education that her students receive.’ I use this exercise, nearly every week. In fact, when I returned to the office from the workshop, there was an anonymous letter in my mailbox that was signed by ‘a disgruntled Master Gardener’. I reread that letter, and instead of feeling attacked, I could see how much the person loved this program that I help to coordinate, and how they wanted to share their passion for the program.

In terms of my teaching, the Alda workshop helped me to slow down, focus on key messages, and truly care for my students. This term, I am 6 classes behind where I would normally be. But, I think my students learned and retained more than they have in the past.

I stopped worrying about students who missed class, or who might try to cheat. Instead, I designed my class so that students who had to miss class (for whatever reason) had built in buffers that could help them absorb or make up lost points. These included things like dropping your two lowest quizzes, or earning extra credit points for lecture participation. I built an array of assessments into the class, including TopHat clickers from mobile devices, and adding ample short answer and essay sections to my exams. These things both made it more difficult to cheat, but also offered students with different learning styles different chances to do well.

I started bringing in breakfast on Fridays. I did this because Thursday is the traditional ‘party night’ on a university campus. In the past, my 8am Friday classes often had 15 or fewer people in attendance. (There are 50 enrolled in the course). I wanted to bring a small breakfast to say ‘thank you for showing up’. Over the course of the term, more and more students started to show up, and not just on Fridays. They went out of their way to thank me. Some told me that they were hungry, and that the small meal made a big difference to their day. Being a Filipina who loves to feed people, by nature, that’s all I needed.

There were a few other things, as well . . . students who shared some difficulty that they were going through that made it difficult for them to do well in class. Instead of my past approach of ‘not my problem’, I tried to help where I could.

Mostly, when I stopped feeling like I was there to serve as some sort of academic guardian . . . keeping all but the most-worthy students out . . . that’s when everyone (including myself) became invested in learning.

When I said goodbye to my students today, I heard the applause . . . but I was so confused. Was someone watching YouTube videos, in the back? It honestly makes me tear up to think that it might have been because they loved the learning environment that we built, together.