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Citing Simplified

November 7, 2014 12:00 AM

As a graduate school student, keeping up with relevant journal articles, books, and other publications requires not only scheduling time to read, but also attention to content management.  By content management, I mean tracking, storing, organizing, and referencing publications.  The importance of one’s content management process comes to the forefront during the writing process.  While manual citations may familiarize a writer with his or her chosen citation style, such as APA or MLA, other compelling factors have led me to implement a more automated citation process.  To name a few factors, these include switching citation styles, reusing the same citation in multiple papers with different citation styles, in-text citation dependencies on other citations within the same paper (for example, multiple papers by the same author or by two authors with the same last name), and most importantly, saving time.  The dynamic nature of references and in-text citations throughout the writing process can lead to time staking revisions in a manual process.  The intricately detailed rules also make it easy to make a citation mistake.  Let’s fix that.


 Citing Simplified Time Saver #1:  Use content management software

Of course, that’s where software applications come into play.  Most writers and researchers have used some system to collect and even organize references.  Popular citation managers include EndNote (or EndNote web), ZoteroMendeleyBibtex/Biblatex, and Google Scholar Citations. Yet, many writers still create works cited and in-text citations manually.  Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be the case.

So in the following time saver tips, I’m going to discuss two examples of functionalities offered by citation management software.  Iowa State University offers its students and researchers access to EndNote web, so I’ll use it for my examples.  If you are affiliated with the university but don't have an EndNote web login, go here for instructions. 


Time Saver #2:  Automatically import references into EndNote web

With an EndNote web account, it's easy to import citations without typing a word.  If you’re affiliated with Iowa State University, you have access to Web of Knowledge (or Web of Science) through the library system. Within Web of Knowledge, search for an article, and you have the option to "Save to EndNote online."

Creating a simple citation with EndNoteIf the article you're looking for is not listed in Web of Knowledge, it requires a few more steps. (Tip: If you have a DOI for the article, it often will yield a search result in Web of Knowledge even when the name of the article or the author yields no results.)

Even if your results do not appear in Web of Knowledge, you should almost never have to type out a bibligraphic entry.   For instance, with Google Scholar (or Scopus through the ISU library system, or most any journal database), you can click on some form of a “Cite” link within a search result, then click on the End Note button to download a .enw file to your computer, and finally go into End Note Web to upload the .enw file.  EndNote and other content managers accept many filename extensions, so  our download options are not limited to .enw files.


Time Saver #3: Automatically create in-text citations and works cited within Word

If you have an EndNote web account, download the Cite While You Write plugin for use in Microsoft Word.

Now you’re writing and ready to cite a source in Word.  Go to the EndNote tab on the Word toolbar to search within your EndNote library for a reference. Among the options in the Cite While You Write plugin, you can format the style (such as APA 6th) of your choosing.  The application automatically creates and formats both in-text citations and the references at the end of your paper, so you do nothing!  

Citing Simplified It also lets you decide how to present in-text citations (with or without author, year, page number, special text, etc.). Presto, bingo!  It’s really that simple.  If you add another paper from the same author with the same year, the application will automatically update the in-text citations, for example, to display 2014a and 2014b.  If you add a third paper from that author in that same year but which precedes the other two papers in the works cited list, the application automatically updates the a, b, and c suffixes accordingly.  Rather than spending time worrying about these small details, you can get on with your writing.

For theses and dissertations that require more than one chapter and more than one reference list, there is a catch.  You must create separate word files for each chapter of your paper because word only allows one reference section per document.  However, that is always the case, regardless of whether you use the EndNote plugin or Word's automatic works cited generator.  When creating a final PDF file for submission from each of your chapters in Word, you can subsequently combine the multiple documents into a single file using Adobe Acrobat Pro or LaTex.


Final Thoughts

As I continue on my journey as a doctoral student, I plan to look at other content management software and document preparation options.  LaTex combined with BibTex/Biblatex is particularly appealing because Iowa State University provides theses/dissertation templates and it is free/open source.  I really enjoy the flexibility offered by LaTex.  Its usability can get in the way though.  A major disadvantage is that a writing team needs both time and interest in overcoming an initial hurdle of writing text within the theses/dissertation templates, which like all LaTex files, display the LaTex syntax.  Other options may be your best bet.  As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, there are numerous content management options out, and one in particular, Qiqqa (pronounced “quicker”) has caught my attention.  It offers a free basic option and educational pricing for its premium edition.  Perhaps it will inspire a future blog post!


Join in the Discussion

Do you have a favorite content management system or software?  We all have much to learn from each other, and I would greatly appreciate your tips, insights, and strategies!

The author, Carrie Chennault, is a PhD student in the LESEM and PLUS labs at Iowa State University.

Disclaimer:  The products—including citatation management, abstract and citation database, search engine, document preparation, and word processing options—mentioned in this blog post are a non-exhaustive list, and in writing this post the author is not promoting the use of any particular product, nor has or will the author receive benefits from the mention of any of these product options.  Rather, the examples mentioned in this post are for illustrative purposes only, and EndNote in particular was highlighted because of Iowa State University’s subscription for its students and researchers to its services.


Forget me not: A few tips on meeting notes

September 26, 2014 12:00 AM

Carrie Meeting Notes As a graduate student researcher, I have a million things on my mind. Putting this in the context of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slowgrad school and all of its meetings can contribute to cognitive strain, leaving some of my day-to-day conversations, decisions, and action items to disappear just beyond reach. Taking effective meeting notes is one of my favorite strategies for combatting forgetfulness. Plus great notes have the added bonus of providing other attendees a concise summary of the agenda, topics, discussion, and outcomes. Here are a few of my tips.

Outline ahead of time. Create an outline prior to the meeting. This is essential if you are facilitating. I tend to use Microsoft OneNote because of its excellent organizational functionality. Other great products include Google Keep and Evernote. If you don’t have Microsoft Office licensing that includes OneNote, all three of the tools I mentioned have free online versions (that require signing up for an account).

If I have a regularly scheduled meeting, for instance a weekly project meeting, I create a file for the project and tabs for each weekly meeting. The content of an outline includes:

  • Meeting title formatted as “YYYYMMDD Meeting with Person/Team X”
  • Attendees
  • Date, time, and possibly location of meeting
  • Concise agenda
  • All topics of discussion and questions that you want to ask
  • Organization of topics and content as bulleted items under section headers

Finally, I make sure to keep it short!

Preparing to take notes. Before I leave my desk to attend the meeting, I print out my outline and sometimes take a notepad for writing additional notes or sketching diagrams. Pen and paper help me later in the note-taking process to recall the content of the meeting. Everyone has their own method though, and if you are glued to your tablet, having the outline makes it easy to fill in the details during the meeting. The key is recognizing that the notes you take during the meeting are not your final product.

After the meeting. Okay, I know we tend to rush off to a class or another meeting immediately after a meeting. Life is busy!  The last thing we want to do is spend an extra 30 minutes reliving the meeting we just completed. However, I recommend going back to transfer your notes—whether on paper or computer—to final notes on the computer. I divide finalizing notes into a five step process. First, choose (and type up) the big picture ideas from your meeting. Second, reword and summarize what you learned during the meeting. The point is not to include the exact notes you took during the meeting. Third, don’t type up every word you take down on paper or computer during the meeting (yes, I’m being redundant here). Fourth, the only details that are important are the ones that are required for future actions. Discard or delete everything else. Fifth, reread your notes to make sure they will make sense months later once you’ve forgotten what happened during the meeting.

Once you’ve got the notes together, save them in a common file folder if your meeting group has one and/or email the notes out to attendees.

Final thoughts. I think creating outlines are the single best way to prepare for a meeting. Even if you’re not leading the meeting or not sure how the conversation will go, make an outline that includes what you want to discuss or find out.

How about you? What do you do to get the most out of valuable meeting time? I hope you’ll consider responding below with a few tips of your own!

The author, Carrie Chennault, is a PhD student in the LESEM and PLUS labs at Iowa State University.


Exhaustion with a side of rice and beans

August 29, 2014 12:00 AM

Emily Zimmerman It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I am exhausted, and I have a headache that I can’t seem to shake. It started slowly creeping along my forehead around noon, trying to elude my usual my mid-morning coffee. But today, like the last six days, it had nothing to fear, nothing to slink away from. I haven’t had coffee or caffeine in seven days because I can’t afford it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post on chronic food insecurity in the Heartland, and I chose to take on the SNAP challenge. As such, this week, I am living on just $31.50 (4.50 per day or $1.50 per meal). I tackled grocery shopping the day before I planned to begin the SNAP challenge; this was a challenge in itself. According to this recently published graphic, people in the United States spend an average of just 6.6% of their income on food, a value that is among the lowest in the world. We have become experts in the policies and processes required for the production and consumption of cheap food. Yet, even here, amongst this land of relative low-cost food, I was struggling to remain within my budget. I zigged and zagged up the aisles, carefully pulling items from the shelf, doing the math in my head (could I afford this?!), and then debating whether the item in my hand was worthy of being tossed into the small pile in my cart. One thing became quickly apparent as I raced up and down the aisle: the perimeter of the grocery store (i.e., where the fresh items are) where I generally get most of my groceries was far outside the budget. I was instead relegated to the land of the interior, the land of processed, prepackaged, and canned foods.

In the end, my purchase for the week included no fresh produce or meat. For breakfast, I purchased a box of cereal and a gallon of milk. For lunch, I purchased two options: (1) mac & cheese with canned green beans and (2) white rice with canned beans and canned tomatoes with chilies. Dinner was similarly simple. I purchased five boxes of HyVee brand Hamburger Helper and 3 additional cans of beans to be split throughout the week. Reading through the list, what stands out to you? One of the most immediate and striking conclusions that I came to as I stood in line waiting to pay for my groceries was that my cart had no fresh food, lacked many essential nutrients, and was pretty much the same – carbs with the occasional vegetable or protein. In trying to maintain an appropriate daily caloric intake within my budget, I had sacrificed freshness, nutrition, and variety.  As thought about my cart, I nervously recalculated the grocery bill in my head, meticulously glancing through my food and trying to decide what I could live without should I have to put something back. The nerves were luckily unnecessary because the total bill for my groceries: $31.05, just $0.45 within budget.

These themes that occurred to me in line at the grocery have remained strong throughout my week. The lack of fresh produce is a really tough adjustment for me. Fresh produce makes up a large proportion of my diet, and the lack of variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in my diet during the challenge was a staggering difference. Moreover, because the fresh produce was largely replaced with starches, I often feel full but exhausted – the key nutrients that maintain my body and allow me to feel energized and optimistic seem to be missing. I also think about food far more than usual during the week. I daydream and fantasize of returning to a variety of foods (okay in all honesty, coffee, beer, and cheese tended to appear more than other foods), of being able to join colleagues and friends for social gatherings at restaurants and bars again without passing on food and drinks, and of being able to access food that nourishes my body.

As grateful as I am that my week is nearing its end, I struggle with the simple fact that for 1 in 6 Story County residents, this is their continued reality. Their week doesn’t come to an end – it merely begins again. Their struggle to access food, not only for themselves but for their families, remains a constant stress, worry, and concern. As communities we must begin to address the realities of hunger that plagues our neighbors. So, now I’d like to challenge you: sign-up to volunteer for a shift at your local soup kitchen or food pantry, donate a row of your garden or extra produce to a food pantry—or take the SNAP challenge yourself! Hunger in the United States, in your state, in your county, in your community is real, but together we have the power to change the narrative, to end the hunger epidemic.

Live in Ames? Check out these great opportunities to volunteer:

Food at First Kitchen
Food at First Market
Food at First Garden
Mid Iowa Community Action
Plant a Row for the Hungry

The author, Emily Zimmerman, is a PhD student in the LESEM and PLUS Labs at Iowa State University.

Comment 1 

Response and an excellent article 
Submitted by Carrie Chennault  Wed, 09/03/2014 - 11:08

Emily, thanks for following up your original post with your experiences doing the SNAP challenge. I really appreciate your description of the physical and mental stresses of eating on a limited diet without fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, or your favorite pick-me-up treats. Exhaustion and headache. Your story shows that we are what we eat, which to me is both really sad for the current state of American nutrition, yet also a source of hope for the future.

Andee sent me a great article today concerning yet another challenging aspect of eating within budget contraints, entitled "The Joy of Cooking?": (doi: 10.1177/1536504214545755)

A snippet from that article:
"Yet in reality, home-cooked meals rarely look this good. Leanne, for example, who held down a minimum-wage job while taking classes for an associate’s degree, often spent her valuable time preparing meals, only to be rewarded with family members’ complaints—or disinterest. Our extensive observations and interviews with mothers like Leanne reveal something that often gets overlooked: cooking is fraught."

Thinking about your experiences with a SNAP budget diet, coupled with the stress many women (and men) experience managing jobs and families, it's a no-brainer that we would have a food-related health crisis in this country. Even if we had all the fresh fruits and vegetables in the world, do we have time to prepare them and do our family members like unfamiliar food items? Maybe this is a far leap, but thinking on these issues leads me back to fundamentals about how our society is structured in terms of where we are concentrating our financial, natural, and human resources. Given my background in business, I think about the potential for businesses to be part of the solution. I want entrepreneurs and innovators in our country to begin making a stand, to engage in ventures that contribute to essential human health and well-being, which somehow has been replaced by manufacturing expensive gadgets and distractions. I am hopeful that America's economic system can be used to make healthy food easier to access, give families the time they need to prepare them, and provide community support for families. Unfortunately, in business school, we are taught that profit is profit, and profit is ethical as long as it is legal. Philanthropy is a "nice to have" on the side if a business can afford it. Both of these lessons in the business education system need to change. I think it's time that we call for ethical entrepreneurism, redefined. The leaders and owners of businesses need to be pressured into considering how their products and services contribute to essential well-being, not just the satisfaction of societal demand influenced by marketing. Businesses have enormous power to make change in this society, perhaps more so in the current climate than do political organizations. Imagine what if every entrepreneur in this country woke up this morning and said, "I want to figure out how I can use my skills to create a business that improves the well-being of everyday people and do so in a way that makes sense as a business investment for me." Hmm, I know it's a stretch, but it's nice to imagine such a world. Planting those seeds in business schools might be a good start to a solution.

If anyone is interested, we can chat more about your insights during the SNAP challenge and about the article I posted above in a lab meeting, and I can write up a summary as a blog post.

Thanks for your dedication to the issue and to reporting on it Emily!

Comment 2 

Response and thoughts 
Submitted by Emily Zimmerman  Fri, 09/05/2014 - 08:27

Hi Carrie,

Thanks for the response and the article. The article highlights yet another challenge of the food system. It's not just about the budgetary constraints of procuring nutritious and fresh food; another challenge exists when you bring that food home. The concerns expressed in that article are very real to a lot of families. The time and energy costs, the stress of preparation and clean-up, and the concern over approval of the meal by family members are strong deterrents to cooking fresh, new meals.

Though I openly expressed that I took the SNAP challenge because I have never experienced chronic hunger, this article really hit home. As a kid, we always had to eat dinner together as a family. I really admire my parents for making this a priority in our daily lives because some of my best memories were sitting around the table, sharing a meal together. But, both of my parents worked full-time jobs and were often not home from work until 5:30 or 6:00 each night. Then, it was a mad rush to get dinner on the table, off the table, and make sure we had our homework finished and were prepared for school the next day. Though my dad was always pitching in and helping out in the kitchen, I can remember my mom being pretty stressed in the evenings as she tried to juggle work and family. I think the really eye-opening part is that I lived in a two-parent home with a comfortable upper middle class income, and our family struggled with these issues -- thinking about a single parent living on a highly limited income such as those folks in the article must make these stresses increase exponentially. Wow, eyes opened!

I'd like to hear your thoughts about integrating businesses into tools that might make buying, preparing, and eating nutritious food to help us become more physically and mentally healthy. I'm especially interested in a discussion of ethical entrepreneurism. Let's chat at our next lab meeting!

Thanks for the comments, Carrie! Good thoughts!


Comment 3 

snap budget 
Submitted by tim s on Wed, 09/17/2014 - 00:22

Some observations: SNAP program, the s stands for "supplemental" nutrition assistance programs. I believe in most cases those payments are in addition to funds a family might use for purchasing food. I agree there are situations where that isn't the case.
In regard to the box of cereal.The box that holds the cereal costs more that portion the farmer received for her portion of the grain that goes into the cereal. You are correct in noting that the ability for today's "homemaker" to plan and prepare meals is not what it used to be.
Hamburger "helper" really ? That is an oxymoron.
School breakfasts and lunches also contribute to the families food budget.
Why the high rate of food insecurity in Story County? College students signing up for SNAP money?
Sounds like some entrepereneur should establish some community gardens. $20 would buy a lot of seeds for each plot. Canned (mason jars) food would taste pretty good in the middle of winter. And yes, it would mean work.

Comment 4 

Response and thoughts 
Submitted by Emily Zimmerman on Wed, 09/17/2014 - 07:53

Hi Tim,

Thank you for the comments and thoughts. It's great to see discussion on the blog, and a good opportunity to think a bit more about some of the things that I wrote about!

I do agree with you; certainly the "supplemental" is important. Many families that are simply unable to make ends meet rely on the program to some extent, and the dollars provided to those families is on top of their budget for food in the home. There is more information on SNAP eligibility on this website:, which is provided by the USDA. As a single person household, I cannot qualify for SNAP benefits if I have a monthly net income of more than $958. As a result, if I am receiving these benefits, I probably don't have much of a budget, for food and so SNAP is probably pretty vital -- especially after paying for other things (rent or mortgage, utilities, car payment, insurance, etc.).

I also agree with your comments about the box of cereal, time and preparation of meals, and the oxymoron of Hamburger "Helper". I think the box of cereal demonstrates some of the issues with the food system, in addition to simple access and nutrition. Farmers get very little of the actual profits from that box of cereal, with much of the profit being gained by large agribusiness and marketing, grocery firms. There is a lack of return to the actual producer of the food and the individual or farm that takes the risk to produce that good and that labors over its production. Preparation is more difficult and marketing campaigns like Hamburger "Helper" and other processed or partially processed foods have been advertised to "help" the homemaker. While I am not an advocate of using these, I know that there are pressures that I don't understand (single-family homes, multiple jobs, lack of time, etc.). But, I do think that fresh foods are not as difficult to prepare as people may think -- how do we change people's attitudes and habits to acknowledge this? How do we engage with people about the importance of fresh foods that their neighbors may actually be producing?

Again, I agree that school breakfasts and lunches are intended to make sure that children are getting at least one meal a week. But, schools get a small amount of money to feed their students with, and we've all seen the typical school lunch -- much of the same that I ate during my week of SNAP challenge. Starches and processed foods still dominate the plates of students. While veggies and fruits may be on the plate, they come from a can, often times with additives, especially salt for veggies.And, we're doing a better job of including fresh veggies and fruits. Many schools have school gardens (Ames HS has one,, and we are beginning to think about what is on the lunch plate. We're starting to do better -- and that's a bright spot in our food system!

I don't have a good answer to your question about food insecurity in Story County. I have to admit that I was a bit surprised by that as well. I think that you are probably right about the college students; many students struggle to make ends meet. A recent article ( noted that the average student leaving Iowa State with an undergraduate degree will have incurred nearly $30,000 in debt for that education. Whether that's reflective of SNAP figures, I don't know, but I certainly think it's a possibility. I also volunteer at Food at First, which I mention above, to cook meals and distribute food at the pantry, and there are a 50-100 people a night that come for a free meal and 20+ that come to the distribution center that I volunteer at once a week -- that's quite a few people. Again, I don't know if that's reflective of SNAP or not, but something that I think is worth mentioning.

Community gardens! I am a huge fan of this! Yes, we need places like this and we need people to encourage and invigorate others' passions for this! I volunteer at the Food at First garden, which is located at 3626 Ontario St in Ames. The student group for our department, the Sustainable Agriculture Student Association, manages the garden and donates all of the produce produced to Food at First for use in the kitchen and pantry. Our budget is small; much of our seeds are donated or leftovers from bigger operations. This year, we have also started processing a lot of the food. We have roasted squash and tomatoes and frozen them for use in the winter. We also made a lot of pesto with the herbs from the garden to use in the winter. We'll be processing more food this weekend that is donated from Mustard Seed Community Farm for veggies in the winter! I think that teaching skills like gardening and food preservation in schools could be a great way to instill the pride and commitment to producing our food in our gardens.

Boy oh boy -- great things to think about and discuss! Thanks for continuing the conversation, Tim!


Comment 5 

cheap food 
Submitted by tim s on Sat, 09/20/2014 - 15:51

Your ability to write exceeds mine by volumes. I had some thoughts written a few days ago but lost the post when I went to a link in your post. I'll try again.
" people in the United States spend an average of just 6.6% of their income on food, a value that is among the lowest in the world." That's fine if one earns a median income. Unfortunately, if one is at minimum wage. 6.6% of not much becomes very little in terms of dollars for a food budget. We do have "cheap food", perhaps good healthy food that was inexpensive would be a better goal.
On the topic of "food rejection", some that turn away from "fresh and nutritious food". Is that a problem of our culture's view towards food? So much of what is promoted as easy and tasty is really bad and nasty in terms of nutrition. It seems if food doesn't have a high sweet or salt factor or is deep fat fried then it doesn't taste good. I believe much of that does lie at the feet of the food processors, manufacturers, retailers. Once the consumers taste buds are tuned into that it is difficult to break away. Unfortunately, it also affects our health in monumental ways.
My meals growing up mostly consisted of meat, potatoes and a vegetable, and fruit of some sort. We were not well to do, but good meals were always on the table. What has changed in the past 50 years? At one time mothers passed their cooking skills on to daughters. Or at the very least the daughters paid close enough attention that they were able to prepare a meal. Todays family structure is a part of that transformation. Sadly, the best meals some kids get today is the breakfast and lunch they receive each day at school. Fast food resturants, microwave meals, convenient store food have all taken a toll on how individuals perceive what is good food.
Back to the SNAP payments, my daughter worked as a check out person at a local grocery store during her senior year of high school. One thing that always bothered her believe it or not was that fact that those who used the SNAP card (Food Stamps then) also felt compelled to purchase beer and cigarettes and other poor choices with their non government money. So, in effect, the SNAP money was used to buy food they probably could have purchased with their own money. The SNAP money simply extended their buying power for less important items.
Perhaps a remedy to the "eat more fresh food" would be to demonstrate to those who prepare the meals in the home that carrots, broccoli, etc. can be cooked in a inexpensive steamer can heat up tasty vegies in 20 minutes or less.
I've strayed quite a ways from your original premise of "surviving on a SNAP payment food budget" and hunger in a land of plenty. It is a complex issue that has it's roots in economy, culture, and how our society views food. There are solutions but they involve change and hard work. It looks like you are doing both to try and help out.





Acres planted everywhere and not a bite to eat: The reality of hunger in Iowa

July 29, 2014 12:00 AM

Rent and Grocery balanceLast year, the state of Iowa harvested 13,100,000 acres of corn and 9,240,000 acres of soybeans. Yet, this article recently published in National Geographic Magazine, reports that 1 in 8 Iowans are going hungry. According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, in Story County where Iowa State University is located, the number jumps even higher to 1 in 6. Here, nestled within the dark, rich soil of vast agricultural success thousands don’t know where their next meal will come from. This seems slightly counterintuitive, especially if you’re not familiar with the agricultural production system in the U.S. Cornbelt region. For many, it seems strange that in one of the most agriculturally productive states in the country, we aren’t able to meet the food needs of the population. But there’s more to this story.

It is true that Iowa produces tons of corn and soybeans, but unfortunately, though heavily subsidized and supported by the government, the majority of these harvests aren’t for direct human consumption. Rather, according to National Corn Growers’ Association the distribution of corn consumption looks something like this; about 48% of the corn produced in the U.S. is fed to livestock (including DDG byproduct of ethanol), 27% of the corn produced in the U.S. is used as inputs to the ethanol, 13% of the corn produced in the U.S. is exported, 7% of the corn produced in the U.S. is converted into a product for human consumption (sweeteners, starches, cereals, and alcohol), and 4.1% of the corn produced in the U.S. is converted to a specific sweetener known as high fructose corn syrup. Though the grain fed to animals (cattle, cows, hogs, etc.) does eventually end up on our tables in the form of meat or dairy products, the energetics of converting the raw grain to that product are costly. In fact, the feed conversion efficiency, which measures an animal’s efficiency in converting feed mass into increases of the desired output (mass or milk), varies from 6 pounds of grain per pound of gain for cattle to 2 pounds of grain per pound of gain for poultry at best. Nonetheless, just 11% of the corn grown in this country directly touches the lips of humans – and what does comes with unhealthy, highly processed compounds with little nutritional value. 

This brings me back to my initial paragraph; though we produce acres of agricultural commodities, we produce little food fit for immediate human consumption. And our fellow Iowans are paying dearly for these decisions. Many of the food insecure in Iowa are forced to turn to food pantries such as the one I volunteer at, soup kitchens, and food stamps (now a part of the SNAP program) in order to have food on their tables. While food pantries and soup kitchens provide a critical service by giving immediate access to calories that may be vital to someone that is hungry, they are simply not designed to procure, store, and distribute fresh nutritious food. Instead, they load food boxes with highly processed products with little nutritional value – foods that can lead to severe health concerns (e.g., obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, etc.). Food stamps provide similarly disappointing opportunities. According to the National Geographic article, with the passage of the most recent farm bill, food stamp benefits per person declined to just $133.07 per month per person – that’s less than $1.50 per meal. Provided with such a small budget and trying to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, many families simply cannot afford the monetary cost and time cost to purchase and prepare fresh, nutritious foods.

Though I’ve read a fair amount on hunger in America and have volunteered at multiple food pantries and soup kitchens, I have never personally experienced chronic food insecurity or had to choose between paying my rent and putting food on the table for my loved ones. After reading the article in National Geographic Magazine, seeing my fellow Iowans really hit home for me and I decided I wanted to try and understand the challenges that my neighbors are going through each day. As a result, I am going to take what has become known as the SNAP Challenge, and live on $4.50 per day for a week (3 meals per day, $1.50 allotted for each meal). I want to be clear: I understand that my experience has an immediate end; I will not have the additional stress from enduring chronic food insecurity. My week is simply a simulation of what my fellow Iowans are going through and I do not mean to make light of anyone else’s experiences or claim that my experience is a true, realistic representation of food insecurity. Rather, like others (e.g., Ron Shaich of Panera BreadBob Aiken of Feeding America) that have attempted this journey, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the true burden of chronic food insecurity in Iowa and to highlight this important issue to those of you who may read this blog post.

So, check back to the LESEM blog page in a few weeks. I’ll have chronicled my experience from start to finish, using the prompts put forth by others who have accepted this challengeWhile others have accepted this challenge, I am particularly interested in bringing greater attention to hunger in Iowa – a place where agricultural wealth is unrivaled, but hunger is growing.


Running the marathon of conversation

June 23, 2014 12:00 AM

Marathon pic 1I am a runner. I have run 5Ks and marathons. I have run on icy winter afternoons and I have run on humid summer mornings. I have run through grief and pain, through joy and triumph, and through calming stillness. Running has been a consistent part of my life for as long as I can remember, and though my commitment to running sometimes wans and falters, I always come back to that rhythmic and welcoming sound of my feet hitting the pavement. You see, running is a methodical progression for me, a path forward. Sometimes this path forward is marred with obstacles, and just lacing up my shoes is a feat that initially feels insurmountable. Days like these the miles drag like weights, and the progress, the path forward, is difficult to see; the progression feels like it has all but stopped. But, even in those darkest of days, when I feel like hanging up my running shoes and bowing my head in defeat, I always return to the way I feel when I’m running – the way I am methodically and systematically progressing, moving forward toward a goal, no matter how small or how large.

Like many runners, the way I approach running carries into other pieces of my life. It is woven into the threads of my personal relationships, my other passions, and my work. My friends and colleagues will likely attest to the logical and methodical way that I process information; no matter if it is an issue weighing on my heart or my mind, it is always a progression. Sometimes this can be maddening because I mull in an indecisive and often circular fashion, carefully weighing and evaluating my possible steps forward. And, I’ll admit that there have been more than a few times when my tinkering and toying has left me on a backward slide, down a steep slope lined with obstacles and challenges that I hadn’t foreseen. Emerging from these missteps takes me time, but after sorting out my mistakes and coming to terms with some of those tinted moments, I eventually again begin my methodical forward progression – just as I do in running.

As a graduate student, I study how strategically locating conservation practices (e.g., grassed waterwaysriparian bufferswetlands, etc.) in agricultural landscapes can encourage the production of a diverse suite of services (e.g., production of food, fuel, fiber; clean water; pollination; wildlife habitat; etc.) provided by our farm fields. Installing conservation practices on the landscape is not a new or novel concept, but rather one that has been present for nearly 85 years. Beginning with the passing of Public Law 74-46 in 1935, Congress recognized that poor soil management practices on farm and grazing lands was jeopardizing the Nation’s ability to produce agricultural goods, and so it created the Soil Conservation Service (SCS; eventually renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service or NRCS), to demonstrate the Nation’s commitment to the conservation of our soil and water resources. Though the methods and objectives of conservation have shifted over the past 85 years, the overarching goal of the marathon of conservation has always been the same: to conserve our resources while producing agricultural goods.

Marathon pic 2And here, within my work, I return to the way I approach running. According to the Environmental Working Group, in the past 20 years of our marathon, we have invested over $38 billion in conservation programs aimed at reducing erosion and cleaning up our water; yet, little has changed. We’re in mile 20 of our marathon, and our progression forward toward the finish line has all but stagnated.  In fact, recent data has shown that we may be sliding backward: between 2007 and 2012, enrollment in several conservation programs in Iowa declined by 744,674 acres. We’re losing conservation practices on the landscape, and our waters are just as dirty as ever, polluted with nutrients and sediment from our fields. The effects of this can be seen clearly in the increasing cost of removing nitrate from our drinking water, the sediment leaving our fields, and the large Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Though these efforts may have made initial progress, it is clear that if we are to successfully finish our marathon, we’re going to have to turn around and begin methodically putting one foot in front of the other again.       

While training for my first marathon, a fellow runner said to me, “Anyone can run the first 20 miles. It’s the last 6.2 that will make you.”  So here it is; we’re in the last 10K of our run, and we have to own up to our fatigue and challenge disappointing trends to achieve our goal. It’s time for that final push. Whether through voluntary, regulatory, or market-based action, we must begin to make real and measurable progress toward cleaning up our agricultural act to reach that primal smell of healthy soil, that welcoming sound of bees buzzing and birds singing amongst the crops, and the beauty of crystal clear water in our streams. So, lace up your shoes. Let’s get moving! What are you waiting for?  

The photo at the top of the page is of the author "running" with her dad in a marathon at age 3. The photo at the bottom of the page is of the author at the finish of a recent marathon.


Soil health and sustainability: Reflections on a presentation from Ray Arhculeta

June 9, 2014 12:00 AM

gardening On April 1, 2014, I attended a speech by Ray Archuleta—NRCS soil heath guru—at Iowa State University, titled Soil Health and Sustainability.  Ray promotes conservation on agriculture land and encourages ideas such as no-till farming and cover crops. He has held a number of conservation positions throughout his career in the Natural Resources field and is currently traveling the country to present his Soil Health and Sustainability lecture to students, farmers, natural resource professionals, and many other conservation enthusiasts or critics.

Ray started his presentation by asking demographic questions about the audience to inventory what current professions were present. He then asked everyone if they had been taught to farm or plant gardens to improve nature. When no one in the audience responded yes to this question, Ray explained that this is the current trend in the United States. He says that our human race has become disconnected from nature. This statement really opened my mind to the ideas presented throughout the rest of his presentation.

To demonstrate Ray’s main point that soil health decline is directly related to the way current farming practices disturb it Ray performed a variety of demonstrations. The goal of these demonstrations was to show the difference between soil found in a natural setting and soil that has been tilled and has been given additional chemical applications. His demonstrations showed that disturbed soil does not allow water to filtrate as well as soil that has not been tilled. Soil is made of sand, silt, and clay. Tilling agriculture land breaks the glues that hold these particles together, so soil collapses. It is the farmer’s job is to keep the “glue” in the soil.

Nature uses living organisms, such as earthworms, ants, and nematodes, to till the soil.  These organisms don’t break the glue that holds the soil togetherIf the glue bonds in soil have been broken, the pores collapse and a clod of soil falls apart when placed into water, as was demonstrated by Ray. Clods of healthy soils stay together when placed in water. If soil is healthy and undisturbed then it is also going to perform better in flood events because the pores are not collapsed and water infiltrates into it rather than running off. To sum up this idea Ray then stated, “tillage is not your friend”.

Copiotrophic bacteria are “R strategists” activated by tillage or fertilizers that are dropped on soil causing these bacteria to multiply. These bacteria eat organic matter and biotic glues (mineral complexes) created by organisms and mycorrhizae that holds soil. Organisms die, nitrates are lost, and weeds begin to spread. He calls weeds “nature’s scabs” for damaged soil. If we don’t want to battle weeds we should not be damaging the soil.

After demonstrating what current agriculture practices are doing to soil health, Ray focused on the fact that soil should be viewed as a living ecosystem, not a medium for growing plants. He also pointed out that no climate issues, whether they are severe weather patterns or depleting energy resources, can be fixed without fixing soil issues because soil is the foundation of everything. Ray said our soil is “naked, thirsty, and running a fever”, and it is important for us to realize this now before it is too late.

To manage for better soil usage it is important to practice holism through ecology. Nature works in wholes or cycles and patterns, and we should treat ecosystems as how they would naturally perform. If ecosystems are healthy they will produce higher yield and in turn be better for the farmer. These systems are self-healing and self-regulating, but we need to have faith in them.

We talk about the need for conservation in natural resource systems at Iowa State, so it is satisfying to see the ways our forestry curriculum is preparing us for work in this field after we graduate. It was also encouraging to see the enthusiasm that the farmers present at Ray’s lecture have for these new conservation practices. The future of the soil on their lands is in their hands.

One of Ray’s main goals is to explain these basic problems and principles to as many people as possible. It is easy to present data and facts to all of these people, but Ray attempts to give his audiences a “personal knowing” so that the information will reach their hearts. We can help Ray to reach this goal. He has instilled his pride for conservation in those of us who were present at his lecture, and we in turn can instill this pride in others that we attempt to educate. With this goal in mind a change can be made for the future health of our soils.

Ray ended his presentation by saying “Our goal is to teach and educate our people. Change 20 million hearts and minds who will teach children and it will be perpetual, simply because it is the right thing to do. Build robust and resilient ecosystems. To survive beyond the 21st century we must learn to farm like nature. The template is there, we need to recognize it.”

This guest post is by Maggie Harthoorn, an undergraduate student at Iowa State University majoring in forestry.


The journals my mother gave me

May 23, 2014 12:00 AM

Journal I took a trip this last weekend up to Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota with two of my girlfriends. The winter in Iowa was long and cold, and the pressures of completing my thesis this last spring had forced me to spend most my days deep in the depths of my cinder-walled basement office. Almost all I experienced these last six months were the bone-chilling darkness of the morning and night when I came and left my office, and the flickering of fluorescent above my desk. I was craving the woods. As I left my house, I quickly grabbed one of many journals sitting on my bookshelf.

We set off on our journey to the northwoods and stayed at my friend’s cabin on a beautiful private lake. On Sunday, while my friends were canoeing, I was feeling particularly reflective and decided I would write in my journal. The sheer number of journals I have collected over the years can be attributed to one person, my mother, whom at every birthday and Christmas would gift me with one. I would hold the crisply wrapped present in my hand, knowing in my head that alas, my mother had given me another journal. I grew quite tired of this gift and feigned appreciation and surprise.

As I grew older I learned that I actually received great satisfaction in recording my thoughts. I would write poems, make sketches, record my dreams and goals, lessons learned, love interests, and adventures to exotic places. Journaling helped me to remember what I would otherwise forget, and created more significance around my daily life. One of my favorite things to do on a lazy afternoon is sit down and read old entries. Doing so brings me right back to that place and time in my head, and I can remember and feel an experience as if it was yesterday.

Inside journal - sketch I couldn’t help it this day to also read and reflect on a letter in my journal that I had written to my family but never sent. The letter was dated June 5, 2007, almost seven years ago. The letter describes the first time I had gone out looking for Northern spotted owls in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, California. I was hired as a field technician to locate, monitor behavior, and collect the scat from these federally threatened birds as part of a research team with the University of Washington to assess the effect of off-highway vehicle (OHV) use on stress hormone levels. Every detail in this letter takes me back and allows me to experience those first feelings of finally finding my calling in this world. That job was so monumental in navigating my course in life.

As I read and think back to the time in my life when this conservation-focused world was so new to me, I most fondly remember the feeling of finally belonging to something I had long been searching for- feelings of excitement, mystery, magic, curiosity, adventure, and purpose. When I first entered the woods, my legs were like a fawn, shaky and new. It was difficult to maneuver up the steep, uneven slopes with the loose soil bringing me three steps back with every step forward and winded within moments. By the end of that summer I ran through the woods with ease and joy, lungs full of air. I felt almost native, like the woods had accepted me into their world. I enjoyed the back-and-forth game of Marco Polo that I would play with the owls every day. Being a territorial type, the owls would respond to my hoots and then I would run into the forest and try to find them. This was my job! I fully appreciated things more—food with friends over a campfire, cool dips in the river, a National Geographic article—everything made me feel alive.

Inside journal - writing I didn’t want that summer to end, and when it did I reentered a civilization that seemed foreign to me. I experienced culture shock by my own culture. I held on to that summer, hoping that I could summon it when I was feeling disconnected from my work. And I still can summon it, through the words in my journal. There in the northwoods of Minnesota I was transformed to the northwoods of California. I closed my eyes and could acutely hear the electric chime of the cicadas all around me, the agitated squawking of the Steller’s jay, and the soft, distant 4-note of the spotted owl.

It is these memories that help me remember my purpose, and it is my journal that helps me recall these memories. Thanks mom. What helps you stay connected to your passion?


Comment 1 

Great Reflection! 
Submitted by Monika on Fri, 05/23/2014 - 14:40

Thanks Rayma! Now I'm inspired to get back into journaling. 

I totally know the horrors of spending the day in a basement office or in front of a screen. I stay connected to my passion--and the "real" world around me--by taking daily walks (and a long hike every once in while is FANTASTIC).

Comment 2 

Monika, that is wonderful 
Submitted by Rayma Cooley on Fri, 05/23/2014 - 14:47

Monika, that is wonderful. The weather if finally nice here, and I'm getting outside again into the Iowa woods as well. Feels SO good!

Comment 3 

hoot hoot 
Submitted by Jennifer on Fri, 05/23/2014 - 17:15

Rayma, beautifully written. I was taken back to that summer reading this. Such incredible memories. I've never felt as alive as I have when I've done spotted owl surveys. They are such an amazing animal. The northwoods of MN sound beautiful... I've always wanted to explore them. Maybe you'll take me with you someday?!

Comment 4 

Absolutely Jennifer! I hope 
Submitted by Rayma on Sat, 05/24/2014 - 15:26

Absolutely Jennifer! I hope we can go owling again too :) And maybe a owler reunion?!

Comment 5 

Vet Research 
Submitted by Rachel on Sat, 09/12/2015 - 03:55

Hello there. I am Rachel, and I'm a vet registered nurse for Currently I am looking up veterinarian practice and pharmaceutical subject matters for a vital project associated with medication procedures our team are carrying out at the center. I sourced various appealing and important info checking out this site and just intended to say thanks. Continue the great work!

Comment 6

So happy you recorded your experinece! 
Submitted by Lisa Hayward on Fri, 05/23/2014 - 22:24

You're a great writer Rayma, and it sounds like you may have your mom partly to thank for that too. : ) Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I feel so lucky to have gotten to have some of those magical experiences in the woods with you. I'll treasure the memories always!

Comment 7 

Me too Lisa! I'm so glad I 
Submitted by Rayma on Sat, 05/24/2014 - 15:27

Me too Lisa! I'm so glad I met you and was a part of your project :)


Where do you hide 20,000 gallons of water?

December 19, 2013 12:00 AM

Todd root core What do National Beer Day (April 7) and National Tortilla Chip Day (my personal favorite, Feb. 24) have in common? Neither would be possible without soil. Good thing Dec. 5 was World Soils Day!

I was recently reading an article in celebration of World Soils Day highlighting the numerous and awesome benefits of organic matter for healthy soils. Having spent the better part of the last five years thinking deeply about soil organic matter, I wasn’t surprised to read many of these amazing benefits. But I was a bit surprised to read this:

For each 1% increase in soil organic matter, soil can store an additional 20,000 gallons of water.”

That’s an impressive statistic! According to the USGS, the average person uses 80 to 100 gallons of water per day in the US.  This means the extra water stored from increasing organic matter just 1% would last most of us up to 9 months for all the water we use in our daily activities.  I can imagine what a game changer that would be for water thirsty crops, particularly in drought years like much of the central US has seen the past two summers.

But what does that statistic really mean? My first reaction to that impressive number was to ask how much soil is needed for that kind of water storage? An acre? A hectare? Thinking about it, it must be based on a soil volume; but how deep?  A foot? A meter? Is it as true for a Montana barley field as it is for an Iowa corn field?

Digging into it (bad soil pun, sorry...), I started seeing that or similar estimates popping up in other places—all without reference to a data source. To my nerdy satisfaction, several sources did provide an estimate of area and depth, but these estimates seemed pretty variable. For example, one source reports increasing organic matter 1% stores 22,000 gallons of water per acre to a depth of 30 inches. Another reports that raising organic matter 1% leads to storing 16,500 more gallons of water an acre to a depth of one foot—an almost 90% higher increase per inch of soil compared to the previous estimate!

Rather than take estimates like the “1% soil organic matter stores 20,000 gallons of water” at face value, I think it’s important to consider where such estimates come from, so we can better understand what they mean and how to use them. So I asked: why were these estimates so different? Surely there’s a solid body of scientific literature these estimate are derived from to be so prevalent in the both popular media and technical reports. My curiosity was piqued, and I had to get to the R-horizon (soil speak for “bottom”) of this.

After extensive searching, I found several reports that cite a paper published in 1994 in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation by Berman Hudson. However, in looking at this article, I found that the author never derives any estimates of gallons of water storage from increased organic matter. In true scientific fashion, the paper contains tables with means and estimates of coefficients of variation.  Even this soil scientist found it hard to visualize what the results would mean for storing water in the dark crumbly soil I love to see in my garden.

But a key point is made clear in the final figure of Hudson’s paper: soil textures (the amounts of sand, silt, and clay that make up a soil) have a huge impact on the change in water holding capacity of a soil with increased organic matter.  Because of the big differences in the surface area of soil particles, large particles like sand grains really can’t hold a candle to the really small soil particles like silt and clays in terms of holding on to water. And this affects how increases in organic matter can change water-holding capacity, too. Boost organic matter 1% in a sandy soil, for instance, and water holding capacity increases. But that same increase in a silty loam soil will store even more water.

How much water, you ask?  This report from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (using data from Hudson’s regressions) shows that increases in plant available water were almost 70% higher in the silty loam compared to the sandy soil for the same change in organic matter.

There is no arguing that boosting organic matter in our soils is a key part of healthy living soils that produces all manner of benefits for us.It’s also apparent that, upon closer inspection, the level of benefit we get for that boost is not universal: the benefit depends on the texture of the soil being considered, which differs from place to place. I never did get an answer to the question of where those estimates that were so different came from, and—despite their huge implications—it doesn’t seem like there is an extensive body of scientific literature supporting them. But at least now we have a pretty good idea why they were so different.

In sum, it doesn’t matter if you are an Iowa corn farmer, a Montana barley grower, or just someone like me who enjoys a washing down a pile of tortilla chips with a hoppy brew to celebrate World Soil Day, soil organic matter is something we all depend upon. And if we have more hot, dry summers like the past two, it’s something everyone will depend on even more—no matter where you live. Still, it would be nice to have more scientifically based data to work from.  

Dr. Todd Ontl completed his dissertation, titled Soil carbon cycling and storage of bioenergy cropping systems across a heterogeneous agroecosystem in the LESEM Lab in November 2013. He’s now a post-doctoral fellow with Michigan Technological University and the US Forest Service Northern Research Station in snowy and beautiful Houghton, Michigan. Todd loves soil.

Comment 1 

20,000 gal 
Submitted by John on Fri, 07/10/2015 - 22:14

Hi Todd, fascinating piece. Exactly what brought me to your post. In the time since you wrote this, have you come any closer to some satisfying #s for water absorption and holding capacity as SOM increases at various depths and types of soil?

Comment 2 

Soil organic matter and water 
Submitted by Todd on Thu, 07/30/2015 - 09:07

Hi John,
Thanks for your comment, John. I actually haven't seen anything new in the scientific literature since this was posted. However, I have seen another blog post very similar to this one that takes on this very issue. Lara Bryant's post on the Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog dated May 27, 2015 ( asks the exact same question of where this number comes from. While her answer is much the same as mine, she does consult Dr. Michelle Wander--a soils expert at the University of Illinois--who provides some insights into the math behind this estimate. The posting also cites the 1994 Hudson paper, so either that post was inspired by my original blog post, or there really isn't much else out there in the scientific literature about soil organic matter impacts on water storage.

But the "20,000 gallons for every 1% increase in SOM" statistic continues to pop up. I recently took the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service's online "Soil Health Quiz" ( in order to test my knowledge of soil health. I was relieved to see I passed with flying colors, and one reason was the True/ False question: "Each one percent increase in soil organic matter could increase water holding capacity by 20,000 - 25,000 gallons per acre. Horray! They provide a real estimate, and a range of the effect, presumably due to the impacts of soil texture. But to my disappointment, they list their source as a
Kansas State University e-Update that does not cite anything in the primary literature, or further explain the importance of soil texture, let alone other soil properties such as soil bulk density. I was pleased to see Lara Bryant's post does cover these topics.

So, as you can see, the importance of SOM for soil functioning--especially water holding capacity--is getting just as much press these days. And for good reason, 2015 is the International Year of Soils. It's great to see both the importance of soils, and the importance of how our actions managing our soil resource, impact critical issues like water availability for crops and humans alike.

Comment 3 

Organic matter by soil type and % O.M.
Submitted by Paul Salon on Fri, 11/13/2015 - 21:24

I was re-searching for the information about how much increasing soil O.M. by 1% could increase available soil water holding capacity and then found it in a power point of mine. I also found it when searching on some other power points on line which was probably where I found it originally. It related to the original article you cited from Hudson then two researchers from ARS "figured" out how to create this table below. I do not know how they came up with the table but you could ask them. I just thought I could multiply the inches of available water holding capacity by 17,154 gallons per acre inch and related that per foot or at least the top foot. (excuse the formatting of the table if it does not transfer). So in a silt loam going from 2 to 3% there is an increase of 0.5 inches or 13,577 gallons. Again I did not figure out how they developed the Table from the original article but maybe there is some hard science behind it after all it was on the internet. Which is the point of your original post.

Soil Organic Matter and Available Water Capacity
Inches of Water/One Foot of Soil
Percent SOM.. Sand..... Silt Loam...Silty Clay Loam
1.................. 1.0...... 1.9........... 1.4
2.................. 1.4...... 2.4........... 1.8
3................... 1.7...... 2.9 .......... 2.2
4................... 2.1...... 3.5 ......... 2.6
5 ................... 2.5......4.0 ......... 3.0
Berman Hudson
Journal Soil and Water Conservation 49(2) 189-194 March – April 1994
Summarized by:
Dr. Mark Liebig, ARS, Mandan, ND
Hal Weiser, Soil Scientist, NRCS, Bismarck, ND

Comment 4 

sea levels 
Submitted by Jace McCown on Fri, 11/04/2016 - 14:17

I just ran some numbers on this, on the low end of 20,000 gal, increasing the SOM of all the worlds agricultural lands (12.137 billion acres) means sequestering 242.7 trillion gallons of water, that's equates to a 1/10" drop in sea levels at 29 quadrillion gallons per 1' sea level change (based on current surface area of 140 million square miles). Wow.

Comment 5 

Sea level 
Submitted by Frode Haugsgjerd on Sat, 06/24/2017 - 07:45

Probably hard to model, but on top of that you can add the colling effects of sequestered carbon, cooler soil and increased local rainfall.


The uncertainty of beer and climate

January 13, 2014 12:00 AM

Message box climate change How many times a day does someone ask you if you’re certain: are you certain you want to cancel your reservation? Stay home rather than going out with friends? Bring your laptop with you?  Or how many times a day do you internally second guess yourself: do really want to order another beer? Should I have turned left back there? Will I or won’t I need my umbrella? Uncertainty and incomplete information are hallmark characteristics of our daily lives. Though the questions above are seemingly trivial, take a moment and consider how many times you have needed think about a choice.

Let’s proceed further with the beer example. How often does the waiter at a bar need to go away and come back before you’re certain about what beer you want to order?  For me, it borders on nearly every time: do I choose the same beer that I always get, cowardly shying away from the uncertainty of selecting a new beer, or do I boldly try something different and perhaps exciting?  Admittedly, more often than not, the incomplete information that I am faced with—the not knowing of changing up my beer choice—precludes me from trying a new beer, even though I know it's rare beer that I don’t like. The uncharted territory of uncertainty, no matter how small, prevents me from considering alternative information and making a change.

Though much more serious in nature, the same uncharted territory of uncertainty plagues scientists, especially when faced with reporting issues of uncertainty in controversial topics, such as climate change, to the public. Common challenges in all of science—and especially in a field of science as complex as climate change—frequently include phenomena occurring at global scales where there is incomplete information and  evidence that’s not exactly tidy. As a result, scientists are faced with difficulty when communicating their results: how can inherently uncertain science be communicated to the public in a way that is clear and honest, yet conveys the confidence with which humanity must act to avoid detrimental impacts resulting from climate change? This need, at least historically, has been largely unmet. In fact, communicating the science of climate change, and the gravity of our decision not to act, has been one of the most storied failures of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Inexperienced with public communication and naïve to the role of the media, initial strategies employed by the IPCC to communicate with the public struggled to balance providing clear facts about the science while acknowledging the inherent uncertainties. In 2005 when the media found, and subsequently leaked evidence of this internal grappling, the public became more uncertain about climate change than ever before. Suddenly, the small, uncharted territory of uncertainty became increasingly large in the minds of millions, and the willingness to accept climate change, marred by this controversy, became increasingly unlikely.  

Now just for a moment, return to the bar with me and my beer, and add to the scene above this small complication: I am with a group of friends, and when making my decision about trying a new beer, seven out of the eight friends I am with give a positive review about a new beer I am considering. But friend number eight, the loudest and most vocal of my friends, gives a terrible review: “absolutely awful,” she says. Basic laws of probability should appeal to my rational and logical tendencies. I should, if I am a rational and logical human being, choose the new beer. After all, seven of my eight friends like it; right? But, there is that pesky eighth friend, the friend whose voice I can’t quite escape, and there is the building awareness of the imperfect knowledge. So what do I do? I accept the advice of the single, loudest voice because it is the most convincing, most noticeable, and most confident in these uncertain times. I choose to retain the information that I have always relied on. I choose the same old beer I always get.

It has been clear for years that the majority of scientists are confident in the strong findings of the IPCC: climate change is real, and largely driven by anthropogenic sources. In fact, the probability to accept climate change is much stronger than the probability of my liking a new beer based on the advice of my beer-drinking partners. In this article, published in the highly regarded, peer-review journal Science, author Naomi Oreskes found that, in addition to the IPCC, nearly all major scientific bodies in the United States have accepted that anthropogenic alteration of climate is real and accelerating. In addition to institutional consensus, Oreskes also analyzed 928 abstracts of papers published in peer-reviewed journals between 1993 and 2003 with the keywords “climate change” to discern the percentage of dissenting opinions: she found none. More recent examinations, such as in this 2010 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and this 2013 paper in Environmental Research Letters, have found similarly low instances of dissention from the mainstream scientific position. Yet, a few boisterous dissenters (e.g., Marc Morano of Climate Depot, Joe Bastardi of AccuWeather) have caused the uncertainties surrounding climate change to become astronomical in the minds of the public. As a result, much like me when choosing a beer, the public remains largely willing to ignore the majority of quiet scientists in favor of the few, loud dissenters.

So, what can be done?  How can scientists be more effective at communicating controversial and often uncertain science to the public, and what tools can be used to encourage the critical behavioral changes needed to slow humanity’s contributions to climate change? One solution may lie in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, which my lab mates and I are currently reading. The book lies out a framework for change based on principles of human psychology, namely the human desire to be rational and the human tendency to be emotional, and calls for the development of a clear, action-oriented path forward. Such advice could be highly valuable in the challenge of communicating the science of climate change. Tune back into a later blog post to find out more on this. Until then...

Effectively acknowledging uncertainty, while communicating with urgency and confidence the need with which we have to act on complex and wicked problems—like climate change—presents one of the most challenging obstacles of our times. We know the science. We're getting better at the communication. Now we need to give a brief nod to the dissenter, smile at the masses, and say, “Hey bartender, let me try that new one!”


On living with the wolf

April 29, 2014 12:00 AM

Canis Lupus laying in grassGazing into the fiery green eyes of a wolf, Aldo Leopold felt the power that he and all humans have to alter our ecosystem. He felt the fragility of the earth beneath his feet. Though technological innovations have increased many societies’ abilities to produce food, increase efficiency, and exchange knowledge, it has also given power to the hand that once turned over the soil on its own. Our interactions with the environment—direct and indirect—wield far more power now than Leopold’s musket did in 1909. With such agency comes a responsibility to protect and nurture the lands that bear our livelihoods.

With economic pressures, agricultural production has dramatically changed over the past century, altering the soils, waters, and lives that it touches. With aspirations and dreams of freedom, prosperity, and the honorable intention of feeding families and communities, farmers have expanded their land holdings and adopted cost-saving practices with a transition to highly mechanized monocultures. Just as Leopold saw a green fire burning within the eyes of the wolf, prior to taking its life, I have seen the whimpering lands of the Midwest, withering away from the desiccating wind of our excessive demands. I have seen life rung out of the natural bodies that we depend on for substance.

In the next century, agricultural will again be transformed, pushed by moral assertions by a new generation of thought and heart-based expressions, or forced by new economic realities and ecological stresses. This transition will be slow, as many changes are, but it will be brought on through education and research, and most importantly by farmers.

Image 2I was impressed by the Boon River watershed improvement program I observed on a class field trip this past March. Particularly, the involvement of traditionally conservative organizations, like the Iowa Soybean Association, is emblematic of the efforts and potential impact that the project could have. At a local, national, and global scale, there is increasing influence by private businesses and organizations over policy and resource sustainability. The Huffington Post and New York Times have gone as far as coining the “Second Gilded Age.” In this context, public-private partnerships will become essential to increasingly more corners of the political and social spheres.

In addition to being impressed by the organizational foundation that the Boone River watershed is built upon, I thought the farmer-oriented practices that they were implementing will be a fundamental element of their success.The farmer-oriented research and management trials seem to echo the intentions of cooperative extension; a farmer showing another farmer the impact a practice has had on his land is far more effective than an outsider telling a farmer what to do.  Similarly, ensuring that there is economic incentive for farmers to adopt practices is reflective of the cultural and socioeconomic understanding that the organization has for its stakeholders.

Unfortunately, I do not think that the changes that the Boone River watershed partnership and other similar organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa will catalyze are going to happen fast enough to prevent severe ecological, societal, and economic implications from current agricultural and food production practices; but it is a start. On many days, it feels as though the shadow of climate change, population growth, and increased global lifestyle demands extends far beyond any local effort’s potential impacts. But, I also recognize that I could be wrong, and in that sliver of doubt I am mad enough to pursue all efforts of change.

Image 3Aldo Leopold is highly regarded for his dedication to the land, research, and conservation. The same finger that pulled the trigger to end the life of a wolf, also held the pen that dispelled ink onto the manuscript for the Sand County Almanac. We have the power to change. Organizations like the Boone River watershed partnership that believe in that change and actively pursue it through evidence-based practices, collaboration with stakeholders, and recognizing social drivers have the power to make it a reality. Because, through groups and collaboration we have the ability to destroy, but we also have the power to cultivate a better world.

This guest post is by Dylan Clark, and undergraduate student at Iowa State University majoring in global resource systems and environmental studies.