International Research Project Offers an Update in Symposium

International Research Project Offers an Update in Symposium

Published: August 28, 2023.

Students from Lewis University and the Universidad de La Salle in Colombia, facilitated a symposium August 18 at Lewis University in Romeoville as an update to the progress of the “SoPEF 4 Life: Soil, People, the Environment, and Food for Life” program.

Earlier in the summer, undergraduate students from Lewis University and graduate students from the University of Delaware traveled to Universidad de La Salle in Colombia, where they learned about soil degradation in rural areas due to climate change and its detrimental effects on family farmers.

The international research team of three faculty and eight undergraduate and graduate students spent the rest of the summer exploring plant-based biochar as a solution to soil degradation on family farms in Colombia. At Lewis University, the international research team studied the benefits of biochar on soils using laboratory and field techniques to evaluate soil chemistry and soil microbial communities.

At the opening of the symposium, Dr. Chris Sindt, Lewis University Provost, emphasized the Lasallian commitment to social justice. This research and work aim to create impactful discoveries that enhance the lives of those in need, including marginalized populations worldwide. This shared goal and mission unites the Lasallian international community of three collaborating universities dedicated to research, learning, and global betterment.

Libardo Gutiérrez Mengual, Director of International Relations at the Universidad de La Salle, shared that “this project is an example of the Lasallian innovative approach to building international partnerships to enhance student learning in the 21st century and to prepare learners for success in a global society and economy. At La Salle we believe exposing students to global collaboration builds cultural understanding, communication skills, and knowledge and awareness of the wider world.”

Dr. Christopher White, Lewis University Dean of the College of Aviation, Science, and Technology, highlighted the remarkable potential and opportunities within higher education. He emphasized the value of partnerships between universities globally, creating enriching experiences that encompass not only academics but also cultural and philosophical exchanges. He urged college students to seize these unique chances, emphasizing the importance of valuing and making the most of their time in the Lasallian community on an international scale.

The presenters were Tatiana Montenegro Castro, Estefany Larrarte Laiton, Yaritza Quevedo Tovar, and Sofia Castillo Henao from the Universidad de La Salle, and Jenna Staszewski and Kara Hosman from Lewis University. Andres Felipe Pereira Buitrago and Paula Cardenas Hernandez from the University of Delaware also participated in the program.

The students began with an overview of climate change, discussing its effects on extreme weather patterns and biodiversity loss. They introduced biochar as a solution to improve soil quality and water retention. The production process of biochar, involving pyrolysis, was explained. The experimental setup for germination tests and its results were detailed, highlighting temperature and pH variations and their impact on plant growth. The importance of microbial diversity was emphasized and techniques used to evaluate microbial contributions were discussed Porosity analysis revealed biochar's positive impact on water retention.

The Q&A session covered topics like the differences between biochar and charcoal, plant choices for biochar, and the significance of measuring microbial activity.

The experience was significant for the students beyond academics. “This has been an unforgettable experience for me, and Colombia and the LaSalle students will forever have a piece of my heart. I have had the immensely wonderful opportunity to gain skills this summer in the lab, in communication, and in group collaboration that will continue to benefit me in future endeavors as a member of the STEM community and as a global citizen, shared Jenna Staszewski. Kara Hosman added, “I felt like I had joined a family- the unconditional support, warmth, and acceptance they radiate is unmatched.”

Future work involves continuing the project and collaborating with various entities, who they thanked during the presentation. The 100,000 Strong in the Americas (100K Strong) Innovation Fund team at Partners of the Americas and the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) of the U.S. Department of State (DOS) supported this research with a $34,028 grant.

Project directors include Dr. Jerry Kavouras, chair and professor of biology at Lewis University, Dr. Rosalina Gonzalez, professor of engineering at Universidad de La Salle, Libardo Gutierrez, director of International Affairs at Universidad de La Salle, and Dr. Pei Chiu, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Delaware.

The 100K Strong Innovation Fund award is part of the 2022 U.S.-Andean Innovation Fund Grant Competition, supported by CAF–Development Bank of Latin America (CAF) and Colombia’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Minciencias) in partnership with the U.S. Department of State (WHA/DOS).

Lewis University is an innovative Catholic university offering market-relevant undergraduate and graduate programs to 6,500 students. Sponsored by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, Lewis University is nationally recognized for preparing intellectually engaged, ethically grounded, and globally-connected graduates who impact the world for the better. Visit for further information.

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