Energy-Sustainable Greenhouses Provide Exciting New Research Opportunities

Lab II Rooftop Greenhouse

If you’ve found yourself on the roof between Lab Building 1 and 2 lately, you may have noticed an exciting addition to Evergreen’s science department: two 100% energy-sustainable greenhouses. Now both complete and fully functioning, the structures will serve as a valuable resource where students and faculty will carry out new research projects.

It was ecology professor Angelos Katsanis who first had the idea to build the greenhouses. He believes they will be popular at Evergreen, not only because the school places an emphasis on sustainability and environmental awareness, but also because of the college’s focus on practical, hands-on scientific experience.

“Here at Evergreen we focus a lot on applied research,” Katsanis explained. “The greenhouses are a very hands-on resource that will complement the teaching and research being done here.”

Katsanis has already received numerous inquiries from programs interested in using the greenhouses, and several students have already begun incorporating them into their own research. With fall quarter approaching, he only expects the demand for the structures to rise.

The greenhouses were completed through a grant from the Clean Energy Committee (CEC), a mostly student-run group that identifies sustainable projects to fund on campus. After extensive conversations with science operations manager Peter Robinson, and in collaboration with faculty member Sarah Williams, student volunteers, and others, Katsanis brought the proposal before the committee.

Stretching 12-by-8 feet, the greenhouses are large enough to accommodate a number of projects simultaneously. Solar panels fitted to their roofs provide sufficient power to keep the temperature controlled within. Meanwhile, rainwater collected from nearby is being used to reduce utility costs.

Katsanis was encouraged by the support generated for the project, particularly among students, and emphasized the importance of their contributions throughout the process.

“We couldn’t have done it without the help of the students,” said Katsanis.

Jessica McKinnon, a senior ecology student who was active in the creation of the greenhouse, has been working with Katsanis over the summer through an independent learning contract.

“It’s nice to do hands-on work that you enjoy instead of being lectured for the entire time,” said McKinnon.

Both Katsanis and McKinnon are excited about what the future holds for the greenhouses, but neither is wasting any time in using them; they have already begun utilizing the structures to study the interactions between indigenous and invasive species of insects.

The greenhouses are important to Katsanis and McKinnon’s work because they allow them to grow plants and hatch insects in a controlled environment. In one of the greenhouses, for example, they are growing canolas which will later be infested with aphids—a particularly destructive species of insect that feast on the sap of plants. Once the canolas are mature and crawling with aphids, they will release native lady bugs to feed on the insects, tracking when and how many aphids are eaten over time.

“We’re trying understand how indigenous species are being affected, especially with an invasive species around, and how they can defend themselves according to what they eat and in which area they are released,” said Katsanis.

Jessica McKinnon examines a monarch butterfly hatched in one of the new greenhouses.
Jessica McKinnon examines a monarch butterfly hatched in one of the new greenhouses.

For another of their projects, Katsanis and McKinnon are growing milkweeds with differing levels of plant toxicity. Monarch butterflies exposed to the plants as caterpillars will then be fed to predators to measure the effect of varying plant toxicities on the creatures’ defense mechanisms.

“Monarchs are susceptible to predators and their numbers have actually gone down, so we want to know what works best for them” explained Katsanis. “We want to see how plant toxicity affects the defense of the monarchs in the long run against predation.”

Katsanis and McKinnon hope their research could someday have resounding effects on conservation and pest management efforts in the Pacific Northwest, areas some argue are in desperate need of innovation.

“Chemicals are harmful, not just to humans but to the natural environment, so the goal is to introduce natural enemies to fight our pests,” said Katsanis.

The work being done by Katsanis and McKinnon are just two examples of the sort of research the greenhouses will be used for, with the structures expected to be utilized most thoroughly by those studying ecology and food sciences. Students and faculty interested in using the greenhouses for their own research can contact Katsanis at katsania@evergreen.edu for more information.