SEAS agroecologist Will Brinkerhoff: Studying urine as a natural fertilizer
Will Brinkerhoff is a second-year PhD student at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). His research interests are centered on soil health and ecology, as well as sustainable agriculture and agroecology more generally. For his undergraduate degree, Brinkerhoff attended the University of California, Berkeley and studied molecular and environmental biology. During his junior year, Brinkerhoff traveled to New Zealand and Australia for a study-abroad program. After the program ended, he stayed for another month and lived at a regenerative vineyard learning about the farmers’ work. This experience flipped a switch for Brinkerhoff, both academically and personally, and directed his research interests the rest of the way through his undergraduate career and into his PhD program.
“The vineyard farmer understood the value of carbon in soil; he saw himself as a soil farmer, and that if he cultivated healthy soil, healthy grapes would follow,” said Brinkerhoff. He returned to Berkeley and took off with a research project aimed at understanding the differences in soil carbon and health in grazed and ungrazed lands, forming for himself a strong foundation for what he wanted to research in his future education.
At SEAS, Brinkerhoff works in the research lab of agroecologist and SEAS Associate Professor Jennifer Blesh. Blesh, he noted, is one of the primary reasons he chose SEAS to complete his PhD research. “She is awesome, energetic and excited,” Brinkerhoff raved. “She wants to support students in their own research and has built a strong community of farmers to work with.”
Brinkerhoff is part of a research team of five students who come from U-M PhD programs in SEAS, engineering, and urban planning. The team’s research advisors come from these three schools as well. As recipients of the Dow Sustainability Fellowship, Brinkerhoff and his team have been researching soil health and how crop fertilization can become a more circular process through urine collection, processing and reuse. Because the team members come from different backgrounds but all share a common interest, each member brings something unique to their research, Brinkerhoff said, which has been dubbed “pee-cycling.”
As an agroecologist and soil scientist, Brinkerhoff sees a need for changing fertilizing practices and evaluating what that change might look like. “The current structure of fertilizing practice is quite linear,” he explained. Brinkerhoff noted how excess nitrogen (and phosphorus) can lead to polluted and unhealthy air and water in the regions that are impacted by standard fertilization practice. To decrease the rates of pollution, emissions and eutrophication that can come from using synthetic fertilizer in agriculture, the team focused on pee-cycling, or the use of urine as a natural fertilizer. In Blesh’s lab, in collaboration with another SEAS PhD student, Brinkerhoff used his research to better understand what this might look like. He compared different combinations of compost, urine and synthetic fertilizer on plant samples grown in the lab. After nurturing these plants with their appropriate fertilizer, the lab team compared the soil health and plant health to determine the effectiveness of using urine (and compost) in fertilizing practice.
This research, in combination with the work of a PhD student in engineering and two PhD students in urban planning, resulted in a comprehensive understanding of the ecological, logistical and political benefits and challenges of using urine-based fertilizers in agriculture in the state of Michigan. The research team broadly concluded that increasing the circularity of processes like crop fertilization not only can lead to a lower reliance on large-scale agriculture industries and synthetic fertilizer, but also can contribute to offsetting the environmental impact of high-density urban areas and large wastewater treatment plants.
In addition to contributing to pee-cycling research, Brinkerhoff is a U-M Graduate Student Instructor for soil sciences courses, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, a U-M Institute for Global Change Biology Fellow, and a U-M Natural History Museum Science Communications Fellow. As a UM Natural History Museum Science Communications Fellow, Brinkerhoff has been able to connect with PhD students from around campus and learn how to better perform public outreach through communicating and sharing his research. Each of these fellowships and teaching experiences has enriched Brinkerhoff’s experience not only at SEAS, but also as a graduate student at U-M as a whole.
Beyond the classroom and lab, Brinkerhoff applies his passion for his research in his day-to-day life and shares his knowledge with family and friends outside academia. When he was in high school, his parents bought land in Dexter, Michigan, that was previously a corn and soybean farm. Their aim was to restore the land and soil to a healthier state. His family then partnered with a rancher who agreed to graze the land with his cattle, which resulted in increased carbon in the soil as well as a richer microbial community in the land. Years later, this partnership has continued, and Brinkerhoff’s family-owned, 200-acre farm provides beef to the Washtenaw County region while restoring the ecological integrity of the land. Additionally, Brinkerhoff runs a cooking business, Dinners With Will, through which he prepares food for clients and has the opportunity to educate them on plant biology and the importance of seasonal and locally grown produce.
The people who pushed Brinkerhoff to where he is today all have one thing in common: They understand and educate others on the value of healthy soil. His background and lived experiences are irrevocably tied to his research at SEAS, and the connections he’s made at U-M have deepened that tie and supported him as an academic professional.
Read more about Brinkerhoff's research: Pee-cycling for the future: Addressing global change with urine-derived fertilizer