Young minds, big impact

Meet 3 early career scientists digging into environmental solutions at Murdoch University

December 5 2023

Ramesha H Jayaramaiah

"Solving the problems faced by farmers and agriculture is really important to me,"

Ramesha Jayaramaiah wants to make agriculture more sustainable, using what he describes as a "holistic approach".

In May 2023, Ramesha joined Murdoch University as a postdoctoral researcher.

"The majority of studies in environmental and agricultural science look at what's happening with plants aboveground, but what's happening belowground?"

"My focus is to study the interaction between the two; plant diversity and microbial diversity,"

Soil microorganisms carry out key ecosystem services.

They have the potential to help mitigate a variety of human-caused impacts on soil ecosystems.

Ramesha's work is helping better understand their role in agriculture.

Conceptural figure of soil microorganisms contribution to ecosystem services

Image from Jansson, J.K., McClure, R. & Egbert, R.G. Soil microbiome engineering for sustainability in a changing environment. Nat Biotechnol (2023).

Image from Jansson, J.K., McClure, R. & Egbert, R.G. Soil microbiome engineering for sustainability in a changing environment. Nat Biotechnol (2023).

Soil sampling bags in farm paddock

In his current postdoc project, Ramesha's broad skillset from his biochemistry background means he isn't just studying microorganisms, but also macrofauna like nematodes and other soil faunal communities using isotopic techniques and molecular methods.

Understanding these communities better and how they behave with different farming crops will create new knowledge on their role in regulating carbon and nitrogen cycling and other chemical dynamics in agricultural soil.

"I'm collaborating with Gaus Azam and Chris Gazey from the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, and we have field trials with farmers at Kalannie and Merredin where I have been collecting soils for experiments in the lab, and then I'll use what I learn to select sites for long-term monitoring,"

"But it's not just here in Western Australia; this project is a collaborative effort between Western Sydney University, University of Melbourne, and Murdoch University, so we're doing large-scale sampling across Australia to identify the key factors in shaping diversity and biomass of soil faunal groups in a range of agricultural lands across the country,"

"My research can have a direct impact on questions like What kind of compost or fertiliser treatments are good for soil microbes and soil fauna? and How can these directly benefit plant growth and productivity?"

"A holistic perspective is very important for making informed management and policy decisions. It's not only aboveground diversity, but also belowground diversity is equally important when designing conservation practices or policies."

Fariya Abubakari

"Since the beginning I have had the passion of being a scientist, and it stays intriguing to me to solve the problems farmers are facing and find solutions for what they are doing,"

Fariya Abubakari has used her research career so far to help farmers with the challenge of making sure their crops get the nutrients they need.

"Making farmers happy is also what makes us happy,"

Fariya is nearing the finish line of her PhD at Murdoch University, where she's been investigating potassium leaching in Western Australia cropping soils.

Potassium is an essential nutrient for plant growth, making it concerning that it's being lost from farming paddocks across WA.

Farmers and researchers like Fariya's supervisor Professor Richard Bell have observed the decline or 'rundown' over the last two to three decades, but until recently little has been done to find solutions.

Leaching is the loss of nutrients, like potassium, from the plant root zone of the soil to deeper down in the soil profile.

"When I did my literature review, I found that were no reliable studies quantifying potassium leaching losses in WA, even though there were many reported cases of potassium deficiency,"

“In WA, low rates of potassium applied as fertiliser are less than the removal of potassium by crops, and as a result most cropping systems in WA have negative potassium balance,"

Fariya designed and ran experiments in the lab and glasshouse, as well as at field-trial plots in Goomalling, York, West Brookton, and other sites in WA's wheatbelt.

"The leaching losses were higher than we were expecting, even in the control plots,"

Aerial map of Goomalling, Western Australia area

© Commonwealth of Australia (Geoscience Australia) 2020.

© Commonwealth of Australia (Geoscience Australia) 2020.

Field of green crops.

Image by Angie Roe Photography.

Image by Angie Roe Photography.

Fariya Abubakari standing in front of mural art wall.

Fariya's next goal is to take her findings to the communities that could benefit from them.

"I think workshops or seminars will be the best way to get out and share my research,"

"It feels like I'm gradually achieving my aim, because solving farmers problems is like putting a smile on their face."

Nicolas Farias Rabelo

Nicolas Farias Rabelo standing in front of garden.

"It was like a puzzle,"

Nicolas Farias Rabelo works on the very small to try and solve the very big.

"I am curious about how things work - what are the principles beyond what we can see around us?"

Nicolas is part of a project at Murdoch University zooming in on gravel soil, which in the past hasn't received much research attention.

He's now expanding what we understand about gravel soil chemistry.

"It's the kind of thing I know I can understand in a profound way, in a deep way,"

Four electron micrographs of gravel soil particles.

Scanning electron micrographs of a gravel particle cross-section, showing their major elements.

Scanning electron micrographs of a gravel particle cross-section, showing their major elements.

"I've always been interested in plants, and my Mum is really good with plants - my parents come from a farming family, but they were never able to do it in the city,"

Nicolas' research is evaluating how different crops (starting with canola) respond to different fertiliser management methods.

"We can understand how the plants behave in terms of how they interact with fertiliser, and comparing different products, such as by looking very closely at the root zone,"

Gravel makes up nearly 25% of WA's farming area, and its lack of historic research focus makes it an area ripe for innovation.

"I think it could have a huge impact - the research could translate to improve the farm methodology, like lowering the rates of fertiliser and saving money, and it's also important in the context of a changing climate."

Drone shot of a farming landscape with large yellow canola field.

Image by Charles G via Unsplash.

Image by Charles G via Unsplash.

Words by Ryan Borrett, SoilsWest.

Additional images courtesy of Western Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development and Florida Center for Instructional Technology, College of Education, University of South Florida.