Coming home

Coming home

Sept. 1, 2016

Anna Herzberger is an MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability doctoral student doing research in the Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China. She hails from the farmlands of Virginia, Ill.

The second part of my project involves DNA extraction from my soil samples. For that, I travel to Nanjing and work in the lab of Dr. Fang Wang in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Soil Science Institute.  Nanjing is only about an hour from Shanghai, which makes my presence much less of a novelty, as Chinese there are accustomed to foreigner travelers, so much so that the street signs are printed in both English and Chinese, making my commute to and from the institute exceptionally easy.

I met Dr. Wang through my MSU committee member Dr. James Tiedje who has been collaborating with Chinese scientists for most of his research career. Dr. Wang was a visiting scholar last year at MSU andAnna with soil samples in centrifuge understands only too well what it is like to live and work in a country that is quite different from your own. Her knowledge and relationship with MSU is exactly why I took the time and effort to move 254 soil samples from northern China to the south. It gave the Chinese TSA quite a stir to see 500 small vials of soil pass through security. Luckily, I was prepared with all the required paper work and translations.

DNA extraction is a fairly simple and standard procedure, sped up with the help of Dr. Wang’s graduate students.  Extracting nearly 60 samples a day, the work is quickly finished, along with soil texture, pH and organic matter analysis, without any major hiccups. Once all the data has been recorded the DNA extracts are freeze-dried and mailed to MSU.

When I return (after a few well deserved days of napping poolside) I revel in all that I accomplished this past summer. Over 250 samples that include spatial coordinates, a farmer interview and multiple soil analysis. I literally shed blood, sweat and tears to get data that I hope to use to answer questions about the impact of international soybean trade on the soil in China’s main soy producing region. However, my contentment is fleeting and quickly gives way to chronic worry.

“Now that I have all this data, what on earth am I going to do with it?!”

And then I have a sudden realization. I didn’t complete something this summer; my fieldwork was not the finish, but the start.  By completing this fieldwork season, I just committed myself to minimally three more years ofSoil samples working on this project. I now have the tools to find answers to the questions I posed in the beginning of the summer and I have met amazing scientists who serve as a support network in the quest for those answers. But I am still stuck… sitting here writing this blog while my mind, my data and DNA isolates remain locked and frozen.

Confucius said, “A journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step”, I guess my first step will be brewing more coffee and removing any typos that are in my spreadsheet.  I may be done traveling, but the real adventure has just begun.

Anna at her CSIS desk

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