Protecting Maine’s wild blueberries from climate change

ORONO — Like many crops around the world, wild blueberries face several threats posed by climate change, including rising temperatures. Rafa Tasnim of Dhaka, Bangladesh is trying to find new ways for growers to protect one of Maine’s most iconic crops using resources from the state’s backyard.

Since joining the University of Maine in 2019, Tasnim, who holds a Ph.D. candidate in ecology and environmental science, conducted studies that found wild blueberry fields in Down East Maine are warming faster than the state as a whole, and that fields are warming differently depending on their location, the season and time of day, among other factors. His work has garnered state and national media attention.

These studies, however, are only the beginning of what Tasnim hopes to accomplish at UMaine. Another recent study co-authored by Tasnim found that wild blueberries are more sensitive to dry conditions over a long period of time, which means good soil moisture management is more essential than expected. Tasnim is evaluating materials that could improve soil water retention that would protect plants during dry spells in blueberry fields, especially those once considered waste like compost and biochar to help create systems more sustainable food. She also assessed soil amendments, foliar fertilizers – those applied directly to the leaves, and nanocellulose.

“I try to study the materials that are available here,” she says. “My idea is to use all the recyclable waste we have around us so that we don’t pressurize landfills anymore.”

Tasnim conducts his research in the lab of YongJiang Zhang, his advisor and assistant professor of applied plant physiology, and at UMaine’s Blueberry Hill Farm in Jonesboro. The equipment she uses includes remote sensing tools and ArcGIS software, portable leaf photosynthesis meter, leaf chlorophyll meter, leaf area meter, soil moisture meter, sensors real-time soil water stress monitoring and pressure chamber that can measure water stress of plants and other plants. attributes.

Ecology and environmental sciences have not always been Tasnim’s field of study. She began her academic career in civil engineering, earning her bachelor’s degree from the Military Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) in her hometown and a master’s degree from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), majoring in in geo-environmental engineering.

Her passion for safeguarding the food systems of a warming planet was ignited while working on a slope stability project during her postgraduate studies in Hong Kong. In particular, she was studying the effects of increased carbon dioxide levels on vegetation that grows along slopes, which helps stabilize them by removing excess moisture through transpiration. Tasnim has found that increased carbon dioxide levels reduce the transpiration of these plants, which she says can lead to increased water pressure in these slopes during rainfall, further decreasing stability. soil and exposes slopes to an increased risk of landslides.

While conducting her project, Tasnim says she realized she enjoyed researching plants, and how greenhouse gases and climate affect plant-soil interaction more than fields of traditional civil engineering research, and she decided to shift gears and pursue a new field.

“That’s how things changed for me,” she says. “It was the time of my masters program that really challenged me and helped me figure out what I really wanted.”

While at UMaine, Tasnim mentored undergraduate students for their own research projects, taught courses, presented and judged at the 2019 and 2021 UMaine Student Symposium, presented his research at the 12th International Vaccinium Symposium the last year and has been a technical reviewer for several journals.

She also obtained several scholarships, grants and other awards from the university and outside organizations, all of which fully funded her studies. This year, she received the Research Excellence Award for Doctoral Students from the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry and Agriculture; the Graduate School’s Janet Waldron Doctoral Research Fellowship; and the BioME Seed Grant from the Bioscience Association of Maine.

Tasnim was still looking for a doctorate. programs when she moved to Maine with her husband, SK Belal Hossen, so he could pursue his doctoral studies in geotechnical engineering at UMaine. She became interested in the university’s program offerings after seeing the research being conducted in the greenhouses on campus. Meeting Zhang, learning about his research and witnessing his lab’s high-end tools, however, sealed the deal, Tasnim says.

Zhang provided advice on courses that would help her complete her research and connected her with other experts like Lily Calderwood, UMaine Extension’s wild blueberry specialist and assistant professor of horticulture, and Francis Drummond, professor emeritus of insect ecology and pest control.

“He’s the best,” Tasnim says of Zhang. “Without the advice and instructions of my adviser – he actually showed me how to move forward in this type of research – nothing would have been possible.”

While Tasnim’s studies have been important and widely praised, she says they mean nothing unless growers apply her findings to their management strategies. That’s why she relies on and greatly admires the professionals at UMaine Extension, who make her research and others more accessible to growers and the general public.

UMaine Extension experts like Calderwood facilitate access to the complex academic research conducted at the university by creating annual reports that compile researchers’ findings, and host conferences and field days where growers can literally meet and discuss research results with UMaine professors and researchers. Tasnim has helped Calderwood and others write reports for blueberry growers since joining UMaine in 2019.

“That’s what makes me feel good is that my publications are not just articles that are published and cited. They actually reach a real audience: growers in Maine and potentially growers in other states, other areas as well,” Tasnim says. “If (my work) isn’t going to help anyone change anything, then it doesn’t matter how many posts I have or how many citations I get.”

Tasnim plans to graduate from UMaine in the fall of 2023. After earning her PhD, she hopes to continue helping growers, conducting soil and plant science research under changing climatic conditions, and support more sustainable food systems by working as an academic researcher, federal government employee. agency or in research and development.

“Whether you believe it or not, climate change is happening. Food insecurity occurs. Agricultural cropping systems are devastated in different parts of the world,” says Tasnim. “I really want my research to have real-world implications, even if it’s a tiny bit, in terms of cropping systems and food insecurity issues.”

Teresa H. Sadler