Ben Runkle’s journey from a kid playing in a stream in suburban Dayton, Ohio to the recipient of one of the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards has taken him across the country and around the world. Now, it has landed him in the Arkansas delta, looking for a way to help farmers reduce the environmental impact of one of the world’s most-produced foods: rice.

In March, Runkle, an assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Arkansas, was awarded a $500,199 Faculty Early Career Development program grant from the National Science Foundation. The NSF describes the award as the most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars.

"As a kid, hiking, exploring new places, that’s when I realized how precious our landscapes are."

An appreciation for the outdoors

When you ask Runkle how he got into engineering, you get the ubiquitous first answer.

“When you’re good at math and science, they suggest you get an engineering degree,” Runkle said. Runkle graduated valedictorian of his high school in suburban Dayton, Ohio, and was accepted into the environmental engineering program at Princeton.

It was a direction Runkle said was inspired by his father, himself a recently-retired professor of plant ecology.

“Hiking, camping, those were the family activities I enjoyed,” Runkle said. “We were encouraged to play outside a lot, and we were always looking in streams, at bushes.”

Those formative experiences led to Runkle’s profound appreciation for the environment.

“As a kid, hiking, exploring new places, that’s when I realized how precious our landscapes are,” he said.

Exploring the world’s landscapes

After completing his degree at Princeton, Runkle was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, which took him to the island nation of Mauritius and laid the groundwork for his future research interests.

As a Fulbright Scholar, Runkle learned about the critical need for water supply management in a unique environment like Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean about 1,200 miles southeast of the African coast.

“The island environment is intensely challenging for water resources,” he said. “It has a high population density – over a million people. I learned with managing water, it’s not always about finding new ways to get more water, it’s also about reducing demand.”

That concept is at the heart of his CAREER award, which centers on managing the carbon and water cycles during rice production.

After returning, Runkle worked for a think-tank in Boston, where he focused on energy and water policies. Ultimately, he decided to pursue advanced degrees and enrolled at the University of California-Berkley. Runkle credits his time there with teaching him the research skills that have powered his academic career since.

“That was my biggest learning in grad school,” he said, “the rigorous research into the water and carbon cycles in landscapes. The tools I learned there I still use today to understand those cycles in rice fields.”

Making a staple more sustainable

Runkle’s CAREER award proposal centered on the desire to develop sustainable irrigation strategies for rice production, while also contributing to the education of the next generation of scientists and agriculture professionals.

Rice is the staple food of more than 3 billion people globally, and the production process consumes significant water resources, and produces atmosphere-harming methane.

Runkle’s research looks to develop new methods of irrigation that use less water and produce less methane, without sacrificing rice yields.

The team will examine rice production in different environments around the state of Arkansas, and the results will be applicable to researchers and growers around the world. Aside from American farmers, producers in Asia, Europe and South America all stand to benefit from the findings, saving valuable local water resources and protecting the atmosphere in the process.

Read more about the technical work in Runkle’s research.

Funding from the CAREER award will help support two graduate students in the department, as well as a professor from the Division of Agriculture. It will also help cover travel costs associated with the research, and will support the educational outreach component of the award, which will help students across Arkansas engage with geospatial science.

"Being a professor is about generating new knowledge, but it’s also about spreading that knowledge."

An Arkansas flagship program

One of the aspects Runkle is most excited about, he said, is the educational component of the CAREER award. Runkle will be expanding an existing partnership with EAST – the Environmental And Spatial Technology initiative, which is in more than 200 schools in Arkansas and surrounding states.

“It keeps our work as professors multifaceted,” Runkle said. “Being a professor is about generating new knowledge, but it’s also about spreading that knowledge. Partnerships like this one help fulfill our mission as a land-grant university, to help make the entire state of Arkansas better.”

Runkle’s work with the EAST program will take place in Springdale, Stuttgart and Jonesboro, and Runkle said he’s already been impressed by what he’s seen from eighth-grade students.

“It’s already changed my image of how much junior high students can do if you let them,” he said. “They’ve done excellent work with drones, imaging, designing innovative web interfaces. I’ve already learned a lot from them.”

In addition to helping students engage with geospatial science, the EAST initiative will help provide awareness of food and agriculture-related careers and higher education opportunities, while also expanding perceptions of the food-energy-water nexus.

Looking ahead

For Runkle, the scope of the CAREER award goes beyond his own personal research.

Throughout the five-year duration of the grant, Runkle will be partnering with researchers in California, Uruguay, South Korea and western Europe. Together, they’ll analyze results and collaborate to see how the findings can be implemented in global irrigation strategies.

“We want to make sure this work is relevant globally,” he said.