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FUSE (and tea) fuels UNG student's sustainability research

Kaitlin Ramspeck at the National Taiwan University tea plantation.

University of North Georgia (UNG) senior Kaitlin Ramspeck has always enjoyed learning about tea—how it's grown and processed, the wide diversity in taste and aroma among varieties, how some cultures throughout the world have certain rituals brewing and serving it. She has incorporated her passion for tea into her college education, traveling halfway around the world as part of a graduate-level research project through the Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (CURCA) at UNG.

Ramspeck, a 21-year-old general biology major, was among a group of students this summer participating in the Faculty Undergraduate Summer Engagement (FUSE) program at UNG. Now in its second year, FUSE pairs faculty and students together in full-time research projects for six weeks. Teams then present to other FUSE faculty and peers and receive critical feedback on their findings.

“This year, we had research teams from all parts of the university, including our first research teams from business and nursing,” said Anastasia Lin, assistant dean of student research and scholarship. “The diversity and uniqueness of the projects led to much discussion and collaboration throughout the summer.”

Ramspeck was one of two student-led teams (out of a total of 10) whose proposal, titled "A Study of the Differences of Soil Invertebrate Activity Between Organic and Non-organic Tea Plantations in Taiwan," took her to an area of the world she had never visited.

Ramspeck's research project was to study whether organic farming practices could improve soil properties in a former conventionally managed tea planation. The project took place at the Fenghuang tea plantation, located in central Taiwan and owned by the National Taiwan University.

"Making tea is a complex process, it's not just about growing plants. You have to be a skilled tea maker in processing tea," said Ramspeck. "You have to be skilled in processing it and drying it. It takes at least a week to dry tea after its harvested. The length of time drying tea can change how it will taste."

Dr. Ching-Yu Huang, a biology professor and Ramspeck's faculty partner, referred her to colleagues living in Taiwan for logistical help. Once Ramspeck arrived on the island nation in early May, she relied on them for finding a place to stay, securing office and research facilities, and making sense of public transportation.

"I don't speak a word of Chinese and it's not a language that's easy to learn," said Ramspeck. "The Taiwanese take 10 years of English classes while they're in school, but most of them were so shy around me they didn't speak it."

Ramspeck's research summary states that in Taiwan, tea cultivation and production varies from farm to farm and quality depends on a number of factors, including climate, altitude (teas grown at higher altitudes are richer in taste and more fragrant), soil nutrients, and pest control (a wasp-like pest makes some teas sweeter).

Conventional agricultural methods consist of soil tillage, monoculture cultivation (producing a single crop), low natural nutrient replacement due to harvesting, and excessive chemical application such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. As a result, conventional practices often lead to soil degradation, a decrease of soil organism diversity, and nutrient loss. In more recent years, tea producers have begun to place more emphasis on making the process more sustainable through organic agricultural methods.

"Kaitlin’s research focuses on how organic practices promote soil health, in terms of soil biodiversity and soil properties, in tea farming," said Dr. Huang. "She did an impressive job researching these issues and putting it all together into a FUSE grant. Kaitlin’s pioneering work is the first step towards a long-term international collaboration to gain an understanding of the role of soil biodiversity and management in organic tea farming."

Ramspeck submitted an abstract of her findings to the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) which holds its annual conference in October. She will present her final report at the Annual Research Conference (ARC) held on UNG’s Dahlonega Campus in March 2018.

The other FUSE teams for 2017 are:

  • Dr. Troy Smith and Lynn Cameron: The Effects of Binaural Beats on Long Term Memory and Brain Activity.
  • Dr. Megan Hoffman, Cayman Smith and Chase Williams: Individual Differences in Responses to Enrichment Opportunities in Zoo-Housed American Black Bears.
  • Dr. Adam Jordan, Allison Reilly, and Desmond Vaird: Bridging the Gap: Understanding Student Perspectives of Mentally Healthy School Spaces in Alternative School Settings.
  • Dr. Tony Zschau, Devin Hing, Severin Mangold and Chelsey Willoughby: Tiny Houses—Big Community: Mapping the Early Formative Stages of the Largest Tiny House Community in the Nation.
  • Dr. Kasey Jordan and Madison Jackson: Family Perceptions of Mental Health in a Georgia Alternative School.
  • Dr. Nancy Dalman, Dr. Jill Schulze, Kendall Maze, Richard Settele, and Logan Young: Establishment of a Long-Term Study of the Cushion Star Oreaster reticulatus in Calabash Caye, Belize.
  • Dr. Yu Wang and Caroline Brown: Expediting Furan Production for Biofuel Application and Application of a Research Project in an Advanced STEM Course.
  • Logan Moore, Professor Zac Miller, and Dr. Katayoun Mobasher: Generating a Lithological Map Of the Khoy, Iran Ohiolite Region, Using Remote Sensing and GIS.
  • Dr. Ellen Best and Rebecca Blythe: An Exploratory Investigation into the Impact of the Georgia Film Tax Credit in Three North Georgia Communities.

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