One UW–Madison student's unique path to the Ph.D.

by Kaine Korzekwa

Mallika Nocco

Mallika Nocco

Mallika Nocco's unique path to becoming a successful Ph.D. student stands as a shining testament to the many diverse routes students take to arrive at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Graduate School.

In her undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota, a love of books got her degrees in philosophy and comparative literature, a love of communication made her captain of the mock trial team, and a love of science took her to a neuroscience lab. After graduation she moved to Madison, Wis. to work for a pharmaceutical company. Taking advantage of beautiful, warm summers in Wisconsin, she became passionate about gardening, even participating in UW–Extension's Master Gardeners Program.

It was then that a keen interest in soil motivated her to alter her career path and her life. Approaching age 30, she went back to school for a master's degree in Soil Science at UW–Madison.

"I said 'I think I'm going to start studying soil,'" Nocco says. "With Chris Kucharik, I took a class on environmental biophysics and it changed my life. It really changed the way that I think about the environment and how I think about carbon and water and energy and how they are always moving through the environment. I already loved plants but the class made me love and respect them a lot, too."

Kucharik, a professor in the Department of Agronomy, later became her Ph.D. adviser when she decided to continue her studies in the area of environmental biophysics, which is the study of how living things interact with parts of the environment closely surrounding them, such as water, carbon, sunlight, and soil. She is currently in the environment and resources Ph.D. program in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

I like the Wisconsin Idea. It means you go out into the community and practice what you’re learning. I have had this experience, and it’s one of the things I’ve liked most about being here. There’s no better place to be studying something related to agriculture.

—Mallika Nocco

Nocco's research takes her to the Central Sands of Wisconsin, an area known for its rich agricultural history. The area is a mingling of large vegetable producers, a shallow aquifer, very, very sandy soils, and bodies of water used for recreation and trout fishing.

IMG_0554In the Central Sands she studies how water moves from the soil, through crops, and back into the air through pores in the plants — a process called evapotranspiration. Measuring evapotranspiration is like finding the remainder of a budget when balancing a checkbook, explains Nocco, now in the fourth year of her Ph.D. By inserting instruments deep into the ground and measuring drainage, she can determine what water would be reaching the aquifer. Probes inserted in the soil then tell her how much water is retained in the soil. Lastly, she measures rain and irrigation. Because she knows all of the water that's been put into the field and also how much has left, the unknown—or remainder—left the field via evapotranspiration.

"If you water a plant, 90% of that water goes through evapotranspiration," says Nocco, adding that her work is being conducted on an actual farm in the Central Sands. "It's important because it really modifies the water cycle on a grand scale across the landscape. It's a really complex issue because all of the water is connected. The crops are changing the flow of water and even possibly the climate and uncovering these changes could help us manage the water better and help the farmers."

Students in the Nelson Institute are encouraged to bring together different disciplines in their work. For her, that means investigating how scientists and other groups communicate with stakeholders about the science surrounding the issue of water in this area of the state.

Through her work in the Department of Agronomy during her Ph.D. in the Nelson Institute, Nocco has experienced a wide breadth of study and collaboration. She says she enjoys both the theory and practical skills she's picked up along the way, as well as how her work can have an impact.

In a future job, Nocco wants to be able to pursue teaching and outreach but, above all else, she wants to continue performing research. She adds that students coming back to school from different backgrounds shouldn't be afraid to ask questions and engage, especially at an institution with a great amount of resources like UW–Madison.

"I like the Wisconsin Idea," she adds. "It means you go out into the community and practice what you're learning. I have had this experience and it's one of the things I've liked most about being here. There's no better place to be studying something related to agriculture."

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