Sam Sun: Gathering Smarter Cropland Data

Sam Sun: Gathering Smarter Cropland Data

Xiangmin “Sam” Sun is a postdoc focusing on field observation of greenhouse gas fluxes for biofuel crops, and has interests in eco-hydrology and data sciences in general.

Sun graduated from Lanzhou University in China with a bachelor’s degree in Hydrology. He then earned his master’s degree in Environmental Engineering at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2011. In 2013, he moved to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in Ecosystem Science and Management at Texas A&M University. And in April 2020, he joined iSEE’s SMARTFARM project as a postdoctoral researcher, focusing on ecosystem-level gas flux measurements using eddy covariance systems.

SMARTFARM is a two-phase project that aims to develop a precise system for measuring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from commercial bioenergy crops grown in central Illinois. Phase I began in April 2020 and consisted of installing flux and plant sensors and other equipment at maize and soybean field sites peppered throughout Central Illinois and subsequently collecting data on GHG emissions in relation to crop production and management practices. Phase II recently began; it will focus on data processing and sharing, remote sensing, and ecosystem modeling.

SMARTFARM equipment out in the field. Credit: Xiangmin Sun.

Sun describes his role in the SMARTFARM project as an “in situ (on site) quantification of GHG over biofuel croplands.” The overarching goal of the project is to measure GHG emissions from agricultural lands and make the comprehensive emissions data publicly accessible and user-friendly. It will endow farmers with the knowledge to cultivate crops in the most sustainable way possible — and policymakers with the foundation to incentivize “smart” biofuel crop systems.

As climate patterns become increasingly extreme and unpredictable, the agricultural sector must adapt to many changes in the coming years. SMARTFARM is essential to help farmers and policymakers make well-informed decisions on how to cultivate healthy, resilient agricultural lands that do not exacerbate climate change.

As a member of the SMARTFARM project, Sun installs and maintains much of the team’s in situ equipment. One machine Sun curates is the eddy covariance system. This system observes carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, air temperature, solar radiation, and soil moisture. It can be found at all of SMARTFARM’s field sites.

Sun grew up in the Loess Plateau near the Gobi Desert in western China, where water is scarce and drought is common. He learned by early childhood that freshwater is an invaluable resource for farmlands, society, and all life. Therefore, its use must be efficient and sustainable. This line of thought grew into his strong interest in ecohydrology and environmental research.

Sun chose to move to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for both its prestige in agricultural studies and its thriving Chinese community.

“I have a really good support system here: I can go to Chinese restaurants and sing karaoke with friends,” Sun said. “(Illinois) has famous research programs and really good social support for Asian students.”

Sun attributes his drive to his supervisor, SMARTFARM Co-PI Carl Bernacchi, a Plant Physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Carl has been a very good teacher to me,” Sun said. “He has helped me develop a comprehensive and accessible design protocol. He taught me that thoughtful designs are essential to smooth, successful fieldwork.”

In his free time, Sun enjoys cooking and reading about history. He usually jogs for an hour every afternoon. Sun is also an unsung volleyball star, and he boasts a bronze medal from his undergraduate years!

After his time with the SMARTFARM project ends, he hopes to become an expert in his field and contribute to the conservation of fragile dryland ecosystems, like his hometown.

“I don’t have a clear long-term plan, to be honest. But I know I can contribute to society, thanks to my studies. I want to continue my research and answer important questions about water resource problems and ecosystem problems,” Sun said. “I hope to become an expert in ecohydrology. Then, I think I will go back to my home country. I am excited about opportunities to develop ecological civilization in China.”

— Article by iSEE Communications Intern Maria Maring