Thirteen Purdue undergraduates headed to Arequipa, Peru, last summer to conduct research alongside their counterparts at the Universidad Nacional de San Agustin (UNSA). 


Thirteen undergraduates spent part of last summer in Peru, honing leadership skills, developing cross-cultural competencies, and conducting research on important societal challenges.

When finals finished up last spring, instead of heading north to her home in Wisconsin, undergraduate Ally Jacoby instead headed 3,500 south of West Lafayette to Arequipa, a province in southern Peru with rich but fragile natural resources.

Ally Jacoby

Ally Jacoby

Here, in this region characterized by fertile valleys and towering volcanoes, Jacoby and 12 of her classmates spent their summer conducting interdisciplinary environmental research supported collaboratively by two Discovery Park Programs — the Center for the Environment’s Arequipa Nexus Institute for Sustainable Food, Energy, Water and the Environment (the Nexus Institute) and the Discovery Park Undergraduate Research Internship (DURI) Program.

Arequipa NEXUS is a collaboration between Purdue and the Universidad Nacional de San Agustin (UNSA). Launched in March 2018, it is Purdue’s largest collaborative, funded multidisciplinary research project involving 29 Purdue postdoctoral scholars, as well as 63 Purdue and 100 UNSA professors. The DURI-NEXUS summer internship program engaged students in the social, scientific and technical aspects of sustainable and equitable use of Peru’s natural resources for food, energy and water production.

DURI’s mission is to encourage student teams to work with faculty across academic disciplines, and ensure that undergraduates are exposed to cutting-edge, trans-disciplinary research. DURI research topics reflect Discovery Park’s strategic themes of impacting global sustainability, global security and global health and enabling the convergence of crosscutting capabilities.

“Undergraduate research that is international, interdisciplinary, and team-based is the hallmark of an undergraduate experience that prepares students for tackling complex global problems that defy simple solutions,” says Tim Filley, director of the Center for the Environment and co-director of the Arequipa Nexus Institute. “We designed the Nexus undergraduate experience to maximize student leadership opportunities, develop cross cultural competencies, and immerse the participant in hands-on field and laboratory research focused on important societal challenges.”

Collaborating with locals

Jacoby, a junior in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science, was assigned to a project led by Filley, who is also a professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences and of agronomy. In May, she and her teammates visited Arequipa, where they worked alongside a cohort of UNSA undergraduates and faculty, conducting soil biogeochemistry and agricultural research and learning specific environmental sampling and analytical methods used to evaluate soil health. They also engaged practitioners and NGOs in Arequipa to discuss how the findings of the DURI-Nexus team could impact regional stakeholders.

Under the mentorship of Nexus postdoctoral scholar Erika Foster, Jacoby analyzed soil at three vineyards at UNSA’s agricultural research station in the desert irrigation area of El Pedregal. Heavy metal levels were obtained with an instrument called the pXRF (portable X-ray fluorescence), while carbon content was quantified with a flash combustion elemental analyzer. Jacoby says the analysis was challenging because it was the first soil geochemistry study conducted at the station, and the UNSA researchers did not have records on what types of metals to expect, which metals were naturally occurring versus contaminants, or field inputs such as fertilizers or pesticides.

“The pXRF and elemental analyzer gave us an overview of one aspect of soil health in the vineyards that can be used as a basis for future studies,” Jacoby says. “As more geochemistry data is collected on the soil, plants and water in these vineyards, we will have a better idea of the natural levels of metals, which metals exceed healthy limits, and from where metal contaminants originate. This information will then guide the development of sustainable management practices in the vineyards to minimize metal inputs and maximize soil and crop health.”

Seeing patterns emerge

Jacoby’s internship was just one of many DURI-NEXUS projects in Peru during the 10-week summer program. Other DURI interns from disciplines within the Colleges of Engineering, Agriculture, and Science focused on agriculture biogeochemical mapping with GIS; soil temperature, moisture and gas sensor networks; groundwater analysis; soil biogeochemistry and evolution; energy efficiency; and soil-plant-microbial interactions in heavy metal contaminated agricultural lands.

All participants also attended geology, landscape, biogeochemistry and cultural tours with Purdue and UNSA faculty; worked at the UNSA research station in El Pedregal; explored the upper Colca Canyon watershed to learn about traditional terrace agriculture; and were introduced to an area of organic farming just outside of Arequipa.

At summer’s end, the DURI-NEXUS interns, along with their UNSA undergraduate counterparts who traveled to Purdue, presented their research as participants in Purdue’s Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium, which featured students and faculty engaged in research across campus.

“The symposium was extremely rewarding, because those of us involved with NEXUS were able to discuss the relationships among projects and see patterns emerging throughout different data sets,” Jacoby says. “Being part of the DURI-NEXUS project was unlike anything I have experienced; the sheer scale of the project along with the intense dedication and teamwork across cultures was incredible.”

Accepting applications again in January
DURI will open a portal in January for project proposals.  The deadline to submit project proposals is Feb. 21, 2020. Visit the website for more information.

Writer: Linda Thomas