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Kean Receives NSF Grant to Cultivate Sustainable Agriculture

Dongyan Mu, Ph.D., at Drop the Beet Farms in Freehold

Kean Assistant Professor Dongyan Mu, Ph.D., at Drop the Beet Farms in Freehold, one of the project sites. With her are Kean student Andrew Diaz, left, and farm owner Cody Parker, right.

Kean researchers have received a grant from the National Science Foundation for a sustainability study that helps to develop alternative, more sustainable methods of cultivating fresh vegetables for consumers.

The $170,000 grant will fund a two-year Life Cycle Assessment that will compare and analyze aquaponic and hydroponic vegetable production, two alternative water-based growing techniques, at facilities on three New Jersey commercial farms. The team is led by Assistant Professor Dongyan Mu, Ph.D., and Executive Director Daniela Shebitz, Ph.D., both of the School of Environmental and Sustainability Sciences. Three Kean students will be hired to work as part of the research team.

Dongyan Mu, Ph.D., at Drop the Beet Farms, an aquaponic farm

“This project will work to address the increasing need for fresh, nutritious and sustainable foods in urban areas, by examining and analyzing different, more sustainable methods of vegetable production,” said Mu, who is principal investigator on the project. “We will analyze environmental and human health impacts and identify key factors that cause resource use and impacts. We will also compare results and figure out which technique is better, and discuss how to improve hydroponic and aquaponic design to reduce resource consumption and environmental impacts.”

Susan Gannon, acting director of the Kean Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, said the grant will allow three Kean students to gain the experience of doing hands-on, professional research in sustainability and science. They will collect data, test and analyze samples, write about their findings for publication and present at conferences. “Research is a key part of a Kean education,” Gannon said.

Kean Provost and Vice President for Research and Faculty Jeffrey H. Toney, Ph.D., said the NSF-funded project is one of many research opportunities at Kean that “enrich the learning environment and allow students to explore questions and further their education. 

“Our goal is to offer every Kean student the opportunity to conduct research at the undergraduate level,” he said. “This project will give students a deeper understanding of sustainability and environmental science and, importantly, an opportunity to contribute to an important discovery that can improve community health through a more accessible nutritious diet."   

The Life Cycle Assessment team will work with Groundwork in Elizabeth, The Beth Greenhouse in Newark and Drop the Beet Farms in Freehold. The researchers will study two water-based farming techniques, hydroponics and aquaponics. 

In hydroponic production, farms use tubes or barrels to grow vegetables, with synthetic fertilizers added to water that flows through the roots of the plants. In aquaponic production, waste from fish is used as nutrients for plants grown in water containers. An aquaponic system usually consists of a hydroponic system for plant cultivation and a fish aquaculture system.

Mu said she hopes the research project will lead to better ways of producing vegetables in the future. She has also conducted research involving algae, and said she hopes to seek future grants that would allow teams at Kean to design a facility combining wastewater, algae, fish and vegetable growing in one system.

“I am hopeful that this new project will lead to further work in the area,” she said, adding that a future team could include students in both sustainability and design majors.