UC Merced Connect: Africa shrub research could bear fruit

September 25, 2012 

Shrubs blooming in a specific area of Africa might hold the answers to feeding millions of people on that continent, and possibly others.

UC Merced professor Teamrat Ghezzehei, his doctoral student, Nate Bogie, and researchers from other institutions are digging into the workings of two shrubs.

They want to find out why two plants native to the Sudano-Sahel region of Africa help the crops planted near them thrive.

The 3,400-mile-wide swath of the Sudano-Sahel covers parts of Senegal, southern Mauritania, Mali, southern Algeria, Niger, Chad, southern Sudan and Eritrea. It is bordered on the north by the Sahara, on the south by the less-arid savannah, by the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the Red Sea on the east.

Soil degradation and drought stress have devastating impacts on the Sudano-Sahel, which has faced deadly famines as recently as two years ago.

"If our hypotheses are correct, hopefully we can help improve the stress tolerance of crops in the region and decrease food shortages and price hikes," Bogie said in an email from Senegal.

The work could have huge implications for solving part of the continent's famine puzzle -- another way UC Merced research is affecting the world.

About 40 years ago, Sudano-Sahel farmers noticed the success of crops planted in the sandy soil close to the shrubs, compared to those planted farther away.

"It's well known there, and lots of farmers plant their crops near these shrubs," Ghezzehei said.

Researchers want to figure out why.

"That would enable us to intelligently design how we plant and grow these shrubs," Ghezzehei said. Perhaps it will help determine where to plant them, too. The shrubs only grow in the Sudano-Sahel area, and it's unknown if they could live elsewhere.

Over the four-year project -- funded by $2.4 million from the USDA and the National Science Foundation -- the researchers plan to observe three growing seasons, monitoring everything that could affect the crops' growth, including rain and soil drainage.

Student, faculty music enlivening area scene

Professor Arnold Kim's music couldn't be more different than that of student-staff-alumni band Feeling Gravity's Pull.

Kim's The Yellow Hope Project work is heavily influenced by what he has been listening to for years -- old-school country, soul, blues and folk. It's quiet and confessional, moody and, well, kind of sad.

Feeling Gravity's Pull, on the other hand, is loud, vivacious and post-punk- rocking.

What the two have in common, however, is UC Merced.

Both are contributing to the culture that's growing on and around the campus, contributing their talents among the many musicians, artists and writers calling UC Merced home these days.

Kim, one of the campus's original faculty members, spent years recording demos in his home studio. But demos for what?

He's not trying to have a "music career." He's not even sure he wants to be seen -- his picture is nowhere to be found on the packaging of the album he released this year.

"I have a career I'm very happy with," said Kim, who spends his time blending mathematics with science and engineering.

Feeling Gravity's Pull, meanwhile, is into playing -- they would play on campus as often as possible if they could book a venue, said founding member and lead singer Christopher Casuga, a UC Merced graduate who formed the group in 2010 when he was a management student and met his bandmates on campus.

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email communications@ucmerced.edu.

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