Seeking Sustainability

Erica Manchester '17

Hydroponics (noun): The cultivation of plants by placing the roots in liquid nutrient solutions rather than in soil.

When Dr. Jameson Chace was seeking volunteers to work in the University's hydroponic research lab a few years ago, biology major Erica Manchester '17 admits that many students didn't even know what "hydroponics" meant.

Established in 2011, the lab consists of five hydroponic systems growing more than 500 plants in varieties such as lettuce, chard, spinach, kale, tomatoes, peppers and micro-greens. The plants are primarily used for student research projects, with the surplus sold at local farmers' markets.

Manchester's involvement started with a weekly volunteer position, but by her senior year she was supervising a team tasked with the daily work of monitoring systems, setting pH and nutrient levels, harvesting plants, recording and entering data, and assisting with outreach projects.

She also founded the Hydroponics Club, which draws students from diverse academic backgrounds and seeks innovative ways to create sustainable growing methods. "It's not the biologists that need to know what hydroponics is, it's the business majors, the marketing majors," Manchester said. "Hydroponics is going to be huge in business when other countries or other areas of our own country can’t sustain themselves."

The club was recently named student organization of the year. "People know what the word means now," she said.

Despite her dedication to hydroponics, Manchester is preparing to embark on a much different career path. This fall, she will enroll in the University of Rhode Island's intensive, three-year Doctor of Physical Therapy program.

Practical experiences in an outpatient clinic and with the Newport Gulls summer collegiate baseball team piqued her interests in geriatrics and athletics, areas of focus that she plans to explore in the doctoral program. "Eventually I think I'd like to be a professor," Manchester said. "Through tutoring I've definitely developed an appreciation for education."

Manchester's competing interests in hydroponics and physical therapy collided for her senior thesis, which focused on growing and testing essential oils to determine which had the most antioxidant properties. "Today doctors tend to just throw narcotics at people," she said. "A lot of people with chronic illnesses don't want that – they'd rather have an herbal remedy. As someone who's going to be a doctor of physical therapy, I feel that I should know the other options."

The freedom to customize her research is a testament to the individualized nature of the University's science programs. "The faculty give you leeway and let you think creatively," she said. "They guide you in the right direction, let you have your independence and steer you the other way if anything goes wrong."

Would she have had a similar experience at a behemoth research university? "You get the name when you go to a larger institution, but I can't really say that you would get the same education," Manchester said. "I've never felt that my professors didn't know who I am as a person or as a student. I've never had the feeling that I was overlooked. That's a piece of the puzzle that's so important."

She gives particular credit to Chace, an associate professor in the Department of Biology and Biomedical Sciences who served as her academic advisor. As a three-year tutor to students taking general biology and chemistry courses, Manchester worked closely with Chace to ensure that her efforts properly reinforced his curriculum. "He's been such a great mentor to me," she said.

"Erica's high intellect was earned through tremendous dedication to her studies, an exceptional work ethic, self-discipline and a motivation towards professional graduate programs in the highly competitive field of physical therapy," Chace said. "Erica is the student we wish all our students would become."

Read more about this program: Biology and Biomedical Sciences