By Meghan Chua
Growing up as a golfer and someone passionate about sustainability, Michael Bekken wanted a career that would allow him to combine the two.
Coming to UW–Madison for graduate school not only allowed him to do that but also expanded his idea of what was possible for him – and has sent him in a new direction for his next journey in life.
Bekken is a PhD candidate in Soil Science. He will graduate this semester after defending his thesis about how golf courses can measure their use of key resources like water, energy, pesticide, and fertilizer. He’ll also be the flag bearer for the Graduate School after being nominated by his program and selected from a well-qualified and exceptional group of graduates.
Bekken grew up in Virginia and lived in Scotland for three years before coming to UW–Madison. He worked for the Golf Environment Organization (GEO), a non-governmental organization based in Scotland that certifies golf courses worldwide for their commitment to sustainability.
During that work, Bekken realized his team had no scientific way to measure whether a golf course was using too much water for its environment and size. The academic literature he could find was sparse.
So, Bekken wrote up a project proposal for a study that could provide a scientific measurement system for golf course resource use. He sent it to different universities and got two responses, one from soil science professor Doug Soldat at UW–Madison, who offered to fund and advise Bekken.
“I never really thought I would get a PhD,” Bekken reflected. “It just seemed like this was a problem worth working on, and so it made sense to do a PhD and try to tackle this problem.”
Bekken distributed a survey to golf courses in the U.S. and Europe. He relied on academic networks, asking professors in different areas to distribute the surveys locally. After several years of fielding the survey, Bekken had a data set about golf courses’ use of the main resources it takes to run a course: water, energy, pesticide, and fertilizer.
Armed with data, Bekken and his dissertation committee were able to create ecosystem models that would estimate how much of each resource golf courses would need to use and compare that against their actual use. For example, Bekken worked on applying hydrological models to golf courses that consider rainfall, evaporation back into the atmosphere, and how much water drains through the soil due to the soil type. The goal was to estimate the water requirement of a golf course, and thereby calculate how efficient golf courses are with their use of water. Bekken worked with faculty across the university to develop similar models for fertilizer, pesticide, and energy.
Now, Bekken has the systematic way to define how efficiently a golf course uses its resources that he would have liked to have had in his past job.
Golf has faced criticism for its environmental impact, especially in areas where water is less abundant or local governments are working to decrease pesticide use. But there are also fans and players like Bekken who want to help the sport move forward in a way that is more sustainable.
“The people who manage golf courses are under pressure to reduce their environmental impact and they need better tools to do so,” Bekken said.
Golf course managers will now be able to use Bekken’s measurement system to improve resource efficiency on their courses, he said. Bekken added that it’s most likely that software companies will use his model to create decision-support tools that golf course superintendents can rely on.
In addition, governments that are working to regulate golf courses’ use of resources like pesticides will be able to use this model to create realistic caps on those resources.
While working on his thesis project, Bekken also became involved in the greater Madison community. One day, he was playing at a city-managed golf course and saw a flyer for a group tasked with helping the city improve its golf courses. At the first meeting he attended, he identified himself as someone who studies golf courses and resource use efficiency. The city invited him to be part of the task force, along with his advisor Soldat. Soldat’s lab group was able to help select turfgrasses with lower maintenance demands to replace the existing, aging turf.
Bekken also helped the city re-envision Glenway Golf Park on the near west side to include uses that aren’t just for golfers. A renovation project expected to be complete this summer will include walking paths, movie nights, native prairie plantings around the course, and perhaps one day each week or month where the course is closed so the grounds can open as a park.
“Because I’ve played golf all my life, and I had this experience living in Scotland and seeing where golf came from and appreciating the history of the game, I have a lot of thoughts about where golf could go in the future,” Bekken said. “Golf has an image of being exclusive and not for everyone, which I think is largely golf’s fault. But I think that by making thoughtful choices, we can create a more welcoming and diverse community. Maybe we start by thinking about a golf course landscape very differently.”
As a student, Bekken has also been involved in the Department of Soil Science’s ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. In 2020, he was part of a group of graduate students who wrote an open letter to the faculty about actively working against systemic racism. Following that letter, he helped organize training opportunities to try to make the department more welcoming and inclusive. In addition, he collaborated with a faculty member in the department to change the recruitment and admissions process for Soil Science with the goal of recruiting a more diverse student body into its graduate program.
Bekken said that pursuing his PhD at UW–Madison and working with faculty across departments on his dissertation has taught him how to be an independent scientist.
“I feel like this was in some ways, the hardest five years of my life,” he said with a laugh. “But I think it has also been a time of tremendous personal growth for me.”
He also said his time here has opened his eyes to the many possibilities that are available to him.
“What I took from it is an appreciation for interdisciplinary science, but also an appreciation for global science, in the sense that I saw people around me working across entire landscapes,” he said.
That inspired him to apply for a Fulbright grant, which he recently received. Starting this fall, Bekken will be a Fulbright fellow at the University of Oslo in Norway where he will study the effect of climate change on carbon cycling in arctic landscapes.
“A PhD teaches you skills that you can apply widely, and I am fortunate to have had an advisor, committee and graduate colleagues who have taught me a great deal. I look forward to a career in science where I can apply these new ways of conceptualizing and studying environmental problems,” he said. “I think I am now in a position where I can tackle a wide variety of environmental issues and am grateful to Doug Soldat for being a superb mentor and helping me on this journey.”
As he looks forward to celebrating at commencement on May 13, Bekken thinks of his mother’s parents, Arnold and Charlotte Bakken. Both attended UW–Madison for their graduate degrees. Charlotte was a physical anthropologist who studied and documented a Native American burial site that was uncovered during construction in Monona. Arnold studied squirrel behavior in Forest Hill Cemetery, coincidentally right next to the Glenway golf course that Bekken has helped to shape.
Bekken’s grandfather Arnold graduated with his PhD exactly 70 years ago in 1952 and also completed a Fulbright-funded project in Norway. Bekken hopes to be able to wear Arnold’s graduation attire when he walks across the stage to earn his PhD and move forward to his next stage.