Sustainability Village project

Philip Otienoburu, Ph.D.
Philip Otienoburu, Ph.D.
Visiting Professor of Biology
What were your accomplishments for the year?

In the past seven months, we have had great accomplishments working in the community garden, and these have also been accompanied by a few challenges or “teachable moments” along the way. We have engaged a group of extremely motivated and passionate students to work on this initiative. They have been the driving force behind all the strides and milestones we have achieved. We can say proudly that we had three harvests of vegetables that we shared with the community. This fulfills the goal for which this garden was created. Parallel to this has been the establishment of an aquaponics facility. We introduced fish to this system on Feb. 5, 2013, and had one full harvest of vegetables including radish, radicchio, lettuce and cabbage. We also had weekly harvests of basil which has been a prolific grower in our aquaponics system. Our fish will reach mature harvest size in about nine more months, and we will provide them to the community as food. We continue to build strong partnerships with our community around food choices and healthy lifestyles. These sustainable methods are made possible by support from The Duke Endowment and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. 

One of the highlights of the year happened this past April when our Sustainability Village project was selected to be presented at a gathering hosted by President Bill Clinton. Four of our students participated in the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) at Washington University in St. Louis. While attending the annual meeting, the students heard from specialists in the field of global development as they brainstormed ideas and formed effective partnerships with government and private sectors.

What were some of the challenges?

Since our sustainability facility is a research and educational initiative, we have embraced our challenges as learning opportunities for our students. All of these challenges were resolved by the students in an engaged/interactive manner. The first was a power outage, which led to the shut-down of all pumps serving our aquaponics system. Since this would have led to toxin build- up in the system and lowered oxygen levels available to fish, our students mounted a temporary measure to transfer the fish to their laboratory in a different building. The outage ended abruptly after all the fish were ready for transport. This experience exposed our vulnerability and led the students to recommend alternative sources of energy.

A second learning experience was the introduction of a bacterial infection that caused the death of about a quarter of our fish in the aquaponics system. Again, students played a role in troubleshooting and were able to resolve it by purging and cleaning the entire system. Although this reduced the rate of growth significantly, and we had to restock the tanks, we were able to learn a great deal from the experience. The fish are doing very well now.

A common challenge in all greenhouse and community garden arrangements is the springtime attack by aphids, which pierce plant tissue and retard plant growth. Again, students were able to demonstrate their control by using three different methods, including hosing infected plants with water and using a mild natural soap. The third and favorite control method is biological control in the form on ladybug beetles. Students were able to see how the use of an insect predator can actually control a natural plant enemy.

More information about the the University's sustainability efforts»