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  • Peter Tereszkiewicz watering plants with a spray bottle

How one UofSC Ph.D. candidate kept his research going during the pandemic

Peter Tereszkiewicz spent a lot of 2020 like a lot of people did — trapped indoors, learning how to grow plants. 

The geography doctoral student’s dissertation research focuses on coastal dunes and understanding how seasonal vegetation — dune grasses and such — and sediment interactions affect dune growth and post-storm recovery.

“A lot of people don’t think about the dune because they go to the beach for the beach,” Tereszkiewicz says. “But that dune is the first line of defense against increasing sea levels and storm systems. You can really prevent a lot of inundation and localized flooding just by having a dune there and keeping it healthy.”  

Calculating the influence that seasonal vegetation has on dunes requires a lot of data. But traditional measurement methods are fallible, Tereszkiewicz says. Traditional vegetation measurements rely on the human eye and are prone to human error. Wind speed data is too often taken from weather stations too far from test sites. Tereszkiewicz thought he had a better way: use on-site arrays of spectral reflectance sensors and anemometers to measure vegetation density and wind data.  

But because of travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tereszkiewicz couldn’t get back to the coast of South Carolina, where he was going to calibrate his equipment and run a large-scale study on the dunes near the Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences’ field laboratory. 

So Tereszkiewicz did the next best thing: He built his own dunes. 

I learned so much from failing and killing plants.  

— Peter Tereskiewicz, doctoral student, geography    

Into the Lab 

Tereszkiewicz was introducing a new methodology to coastal geomorphology. The spectral reflectance sensors he’d wanted to use are designed for agricultural monitoring. They’d never been used to measure sand dune vegetation density.  

“I can't put them on the field if I don't know how they behave,” Tereszkiewicz says. “So those calibration validation tests are incredibly important.”  

Tereszkiewicz needed dunes, so he got creative. He started in a workspace on his apartment patio, then, when he was cleared to return to campus in July 2020, set up in the geography department’s labs in Callcott. He still couldn’t travel, but at least now he could calibrate his instruments. 

He built bays to grow plants in and a sandbox with a complex rigging system that locked the box into various slope increments. He cut Bermuda grass into 10-centimeter-by-10-centimeter squares and stuffed them into piles of sand to make sure the sensors could still log readings in thick vegetation. And to simulate sea spray and precipitation, he sprayed sandboxes with various grain sizes — from chunky gravel down to fine sands from the South Carolina coast — with pressurized sprayers normally used to apply pesticides. 

But setting up was still a long process. He had to dry wet sand in ovens to measure gravimetric moisture content. He had to test different data logger ports to make sure each one gave a consistent reading. He had to write code to compile and validate the results of the calibration tests. And he was teaching himself how to build his calibration apparatuses as he went, refining his designs through trial and error, tearing things down and starting over from scratch when they didn’t work. 

“There were a lot of trips to Lowe’s and Home Depot,” he says. 

He also learned how to keep plants alive indoors — how to establish a nurturing environment and how to keep the roots warm and how to get the lights at the right height and how those lighting needs change as plants grow.  

“When I tell people I’m a geomorphologist, they don’t automatically think about plant propagation and gardening,” he says. “Having to learn these little skills along the way has been cool, but at times it was a little frustrating.” 

He chuckles. 

“I learned so much from failing and killing plants,” he says. 

I picked this career wisely. And it's not just because of the time on the beach. Everything in between — every part of the process — is exhilarating. 

— Peter Tereskiewicz, doctoral student, geography  

Back to the Field 

 If the adage is measure twice, cut once, Tereszkiewicz measured well into the teens. 

Initially, Tereszkiewicz was only going to run three calibration tests. That was all he had time for. But with nowhere to go, there was no time crunch to deploy his instruments, so he threw every calibration test he could think of at them. He ended up running tests for an entire semester. 

“We wanted to give ourselves some peace of mind before we spent a whole year collecting data, only to have it come back and not know what it meant,” Tereszkiewicz says. “Some of those moisture runs, I had to run them four or five times, and it takes hours to do that — like six hours just sitting in front of a sandbox, slowly adding moisture, and then more lab time drawing the samples and figuring out how much moisture it was. So it compounds in terms of the time and energy you’re putting into it. And the whole time, you don’t even know if the whole thing’s going to work." 

“It was really an emotional roller coaster,” he adds, laughing. “But, ultimately, it was worth it.” 

His dissertation is stronger, Tereszkiewicz says, because having to hit the brakes on it gave him time — time to do more calibration testing, sure, but to evaluate how those instruments played into his research on a broader scale and make changes. For one, he’s changed his research site — instead of deploying on Sullivan’s Island, he’ll set up shop on DeBordieu Island, which is closer to the Baruch Institute’s field headquarters and offers more leeway if the weather isn’t cooperating during a particular field visit. He’s also adapted his methodology: The dunes on DeBordieu are more dispersed, so he’s spreading out his instrument nodes to gather more data over a more diverse landscape. 

Eventually, his research could protect more dunes thanks to the equipment testing and research changes forced by the pandemic. 

His instruments tested, his research stronger and the university’s travel ban lifted, Tereszkiewicz is ready to get back into the field. Come December, he’ll be back in his element. 

“Deployment day is the best day,” Tereszkiewicz says. “All the prep work is done. All the permits are done. Everything is finished and all you have to do is to put stuff in the field. I mean, my job is to go work at a beach. I picked this career wisely. And it's not just because of the time on the beach. Everything in between — every part of the process — is exhilarating.” 

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