September 27, 2011

The Scientist: Prof. Bassuk ’74 Brings Trees, Greenery To Urban Areas

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Prof. Nina Bassuk ’74, horticulture, inventor of CU-Structural Soil, is responsible for many tree-lined urban streets. The soil mix has been used in every state, Puerto Rico and Canada. Bassuk researches methods of improving the quality of urban life by introducing plants within the urban ecosystem.

One of the problems urban trees face is living in compacted soil underneath pavement. Because the soil is so tightly packed,  roots cannot branch out, which causes the trees to live poorly. In response, Bassuk created a compacted soil that roots could still access through intricate structures within the soil itself. CU-Structural Soil is made by mixing standard-size gravel, soil and a chemical substance to make the stones slightly adhesive. When compacted, the stones in the soil interlock and create a rigid matrix, thus supporting the pavement above. In openings between stones, roots are given adequate growing room.

Bassuk demonstrated a passion for horticulture from an early age. She grew up in Brooklyn and enjoyed of growing plants in pots under fluorescent lights. “I was fascinated about how I could get plants to grow in tough urban sites,” Bassuk said.

She studied music for a year at the University of Michigan, but realized that her true calling was with horticulture.

After taking a year off from college, Bassuk turned her hobby into a career and came to Cornell her sophomore year. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she traveled to the University of London for six years to earn her doctorate.

Aside from her own research, Bassuk also leads the Student Weekend Arborist Team to help small communities manage their trees and open spaces.

“There aren’t many programs to manage urban trees in small communities,” Bassuk said. In response, Bassuk trained a group of her students to take inventory information using handheld computers and GPS units.

The SWAT team assesses factors like location, condition, and recommended maintenance. After obtaining data, the group produces a report detailing the status of the urban trees in the community.

Many benefits of trees are also explained in the report, including storm water management, energy reduction and air pollution reduction. This report is then given to local management with directions about how to care for their trees.

The work done by the SWAT team helps bring more money to the communities to plant and maintain trees. “Legislatures usually spend very little on these assets,” Bassuk said. “By quantifying these benefits, legislatures are more inclined to give money to maintain these trees.”

Bassuk said enjoys working with professional, public and municipal employees. She said she seeks to work with people who can actually make a difference using her research. Ultimately, Bassuk enjoys the challenge of being a scientist. She said,

“One of the great things about being a scientist is that there’s always something new to learn and that’s what makes it challenging.”

Original Author: Nicolas Ramos