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March 16, 2004

Earth & Planetary Science Major Digs for Clues
Paoli native studies earthworm colonies
and their effects on farmland

Scott Pitz, a Johns Hopkins University senior from Paoli, Pa., has conducted original research on the effects of management processes and seasonal changes on farmland. As part of the university's Provost's Undergraduate Research Award program, Pitz spent months in the field last year delving into his topic.

Pitz used his PURA grant to study earthworms. He set out last summer to research how different soil management practices and earthworms affect farmland infiltration.

"There are different earthworm communities in different fields," he said. "I wanted to see if the different earthworm communities would affect infiltration."

EARTHWORMS AND INFILTRATION: Scott Pitz spent the summer in the field learning about the effects of management processes and seasonal changes on farmland.

Through fieldwork at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md., he learned that worms and infiltration are affected by management processes and seasonal changes.

"We kind of showed again that management affects the earthworms, and earthworm burrows drastically affect infiltration," he said. Land use — till or no-till farming — influences the size and species of earthworms present in fields, which in turn affects earthworms' impact on soil and infiltration, he said.

In its 11-year existence, the Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards program has given 483 students grants approaching $1 million to follow their curiosity, thanks to funding primarily from the Hodson Trust. This year's winning students presented their findings in a ceremony on Thursday, March 11.

With Hodson support, the university is able to offer its undergraduates opportunities each year to apply for stipends to conduct independent research during the summer or fall. It's a commitment that the university feels is central to its mission, said Steven Knapp, university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

"Since its beginnings, Johns Hopkins has always emphasized the value of learning through discovery, and this program is an important opportunity for undergraduates to work in this tradition with our best and most creative faculty at the forefront of their fields," Knapp said.

During his research, Pitz sampled corn plots in three cropping systems: a synthetic no-till, a synthetic till and an organic system. He used two processes to evaluate how well the soil absorbed water: sprinkle infiltration (which simulates moderate rainfall) and ponded infiltration (which simulates heavy rain). He also evaluated the impact on earthworms.

"Earthworms basically are the most important soil invertebrates," he said. Their burrowing habits are key to soil infiltration and can help reduce run-off and pesticide leakage into surface water sources. But tilling disrupts earthworm communities by destroying their burrow, he said.

Pitz's effort was part of a larger project conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is looking at how agricultural practices in the mid-Atlantic can be sustainable. His project adviser, Katalin Szlavecz, a senior lecturer in the Johns Hopkins Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, is studying invertebrate communities on these fields.

Pitz had done lab research with Szlavecz, but this was his first time dealing with the inconsistencies of fieldwork. "It's not cut and dry; it's not a chem lab where there's a set number of variables," he said.

Szlavecz said that Pitz's PURA gave him an opportunity that most undergraduates lack. "I think the students here don't get a lot of field exposure," Szlavecz said. "Now he likes fieldwork better than lab work."

Digital photos of Pitz are also available upon request.

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