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Simon Staley plants seeds of success
simon staley
Simon Staley, a biological systems engineering major at UC Davis, is part of the undergraduate research conference. - photo by GREGORY URQUIAGA / UC Davis

When Simon Staley attended the Turlock Chamber of Commerce Ag Scholarship Luncheon a few years ago as a Pitman High School senior, he was slightly conspicuous as the only student honored not wearing a blue Future Farmers of America jacket — the unofficial uniform for many local agriculture students.

While Staley may not have been an FFA participant like his peers at the luncheon, he was on his path to pursue development in the field of agriculture in a different way: through studying biological systems engineering at the University of California, Davis.

"The Chamber saw a different kind of ag in me and I thank them for their support," said Staley, who also received scholarship funds from the Rotary Club of Turlock and the Modesto Garden Club.

Staley describes biological systems engineering as the application of engineering principles to the fields of biological and agricultural technology to help in areas such as food production, bioenergy, and post-harvest technology. One day Staley hopes to aid in food production and economic development in his country of birth, South Africa, or in Africa at large. Having grown up in small dairy towns upon moving to the United States, Staley developed a firsthand appreciation for agriculture. However, “at one point I was thinking of going to Cal Poly to study accounting as a way into business," recalls Staley.

Staley's decision to pursue agriculture related studies at UC Davis has proved not only a good investment for the local organizations that sponsored him, but also personally fulfilling, evident by his success in just his first two years of college. Staley was recently selected as the face of the UC Davis Undergraduate Research Conference held this past April which featured over 500 students and their research. 

At the conference Staley presented his project on the biological enhancement of soil solarization. Solarization is a pesticide-free process in which a field of soil is covered with a tarp and baked by the sun. The excess heat deactivates weeds and soil pathogens, preparing a field for planting. Staley's work indicates that soil enriched with organic matter promotes the bacterial production of volatile fatty acids which deactivates weeds and pathogens thus enhancing the thermal solarization process.

“This would allow farmers to spend less time solarizing their soil, and more time growing on it,” explained Staley. 

Staley was presented with the project by Jean VanderGheynst, professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering and principal investigator in the agricultural lab where he worked as a research assistant and spent the last year working on the project. 

This summer Staley will be working on a new research project as he was selected as just one of six UC Davis students to represent the school at the international iGEM conference, or International Genetically Engineered Machines, in Boston this fall.  Students use synthetic biology to engineer a biological system, such as bacteria, to perform a useful task that could help the world and advance science. They also have to present their project to an audience of scientists. 

"They'll bring in industry experts and we will have 20 minutes to pitch our idea," said Staley. "They judge you on the website you've built, the project’s ethical considerations, the team’s collaboration with faculty and the community, and both the practicality of the idea and the way in which the team implemented the idea.”

Staley will spend his summer working in a lab with his team preparing for the iGEM competition and in the fall pursue intensive upper class coursework for his major. Whether it’s a research project or a global initiative, there is one thing that Staley is bringing to each endeavor: ambition and a desire to see real-world problems solved. 

"I'm thankful for the opportunities," said Staley.