April 9, 2013

The Scientist: Prof. Frank Rossi Helps Grow Better Grass for 2016 Olympics

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Golf is returning to the Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Prof. Frank Rossi Ph.D ’91, horticulture, is the lead agronomist creating this golf course.

Today, he may responsible for the Rio 2016 course, but Prof. Rossi’s fascination with grass began at an early age, when he first started to push a lawn mower. His passion led him to pursuing a career as a golf course superintendent and eventually, a professor of horticulture.

“I have literally been a student of this plant my entire life. I felt like a light went off one day – I literally had no aspirations to be a scientist. But along the way, I realized that I had particular skills and talents and interests that lay beyond just the maintenance of golf courses, and more in the overall study of the system. I think at the heart of it I’m a biologist,” Rossi said.

20 years ago, Rossi and a group of undergraduate students convened as the first pioneers in researching sustainable turf management. However, the topic has only started garnering attention in the past five years.

Now, Rossi’s research focuses on developing environmentally responsible management systems for turf grass areas, such as lawns, golf courses and sports fields. He aims to grow the same quality of grass but with less “stuff,” such as pesticides, water, etc. Not only is his research environmentally-friendly, it is also economically-friendly, as people do not need to buy as many products to sustain the same turfgrass.

“Let me give you an example. Midterms – you’re studying, you’re grinding, you’re anxious. And what happens? You get stressed out, you encounter a germ and you get sick. If you take melatonin or something natural, you’re still studying but you’re not getting sick. This is what we do with turf. You culture that system so that it doesn’t get so sick it needs an antibiotic,” Rossi said.

Rossi helps culture turfgrass system by choosing the right grass, fertilizing properly and using alternatives to synthetic pesticides. By building a stronger plant system to begin with, the grass will be less likely to need pesticides to remain healthy.

Because nobody had ever explored turf sustainability from a broad perspective, Rossi traveled across the globe talking about his research. According to Rossi, his research program has been “wildly successful” in reducing pesticide and fertilizer use all around the world.

On one golf course on Long Island, on which he has been working for the past 14 years, Rossi and his team have cut pesticide use by 85 percent while maintaining the quality and appearance of the grass. However, to get to this point, his team failed in some initial stages. In the first few years, the grass died as they completely removed the pesticides that had been maintaining the health of the grass system for the past 70 years.

“When you pull out the chemicals that keep the diseases away, the population of plants collapses. And then we figured that we wouldn’t be able to do it without spraying anything,” Rossi said. They ultimately decided to minimize the amount of pesticide sprayed, as well as to use an organic pesticide derived from plant and fungus products.

Not only does Rossi work on sustainable development, he has also worked as a private consultant for several major projects involving turfgrass. He played a significant role in the creation of Lincoln Center’s rooftop park, Yankee Stadium’s field, the Rio 2016 Olympic Golf course and many more.

In making Lincoln Center’s rooftop park, Rossi faced challenges in designing a lightweight soil that would still support turf and in finding grass that would work in that environment. Although the rooftop park is not the most energy-efficient system, Rossi said, it is sustainable in a different sense – from a social perspective.

“For something to sustainable, there are three prongs: environmental, economic and there’s a social perspective, which includes the social benefit from a turf area. I can tell you, people love that lawn. As we and our population become more urbanized, the value and importance of green space is greater. It has so much social value that maybe the input is warranted,” Rossi said.

Ultimately, regardless of where his private consultant work will lead him, Rossi said he hopes to continue the dialogue in turfgrass sustainability that he helped initiate.

“What I think we’ve done is we’ve created a foundation for a long term conversation in our industry about how we need to be more efficient with our resources. We were poised here to be a leader of that conversation because we’ve always been working on it,” Rossi said.

Original Author: Camille Wang