PhD Candidate Rebekah Waller Shows Us How Greenhouses Can Transform the Future of Agriculture

Jan. 8, 2021

A third year PhD student, Rebekah Walker, talks about greenhouse research and getting involves on campus.


What is your field of study/year in school?

I am a third-year PhD Candidate in the Biosystems Engineering (BE) department, and my specialization is Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). 

What are you involved in on campus or in Tucson?

Recently not much! Before the pandemic I was doing my experiments at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC), played a lot of soccer, and had started assistant coaching a girls soccer team in Fall 2019. I’m currently headquartered in Lawrence, Kansas, where my partner lives, and I’m working remotely on my dissertation and other CEA-related projects. Hoping to make a visit to Tucson (my hometown) soon.

How did you hear about the Carson Scholars program?

From a list-serv blast from the BE department coordinator. [This editor thinks looking through email newsletters can lead to great research and professional development opportunities!]

What is your favorite research project you’ve been involved in?

My current research project focuses on the application of semi-transparent photovoltaic (PV) technologies to agricultural greenhouses. [Bekah presented on this topic during the Carson Scholars 2020 webinar series.] I’ve had to learn a lot of new skills in the process – from PV energy monitoring to setting up and managing a large-scale greenhouse tomato crop production system. Conducting these experiments was a tremendous amount of work, but looking back I needed that experience and am grateful for it.

What do you hope to do with your PhD?

I want to guide CEA in a direction that does not repeat the mistakes made in industrial field agriculture over the past century. These mistakes include the systematic downgrading of biodiversity in agricultural systems, inefficient and irresponsible use of water, energy, and nutrient resources, lack of ownership by and connection to local communities, and supply chains that are not robust to market disruptions. 

The CEA field is still relatively young, which means there is ample opportunity to influence the design and operation of CEA systems to be more environmentally and socially responsible in addition to more efficient and profitable. These criteria are not tradeoffs – all can be accomplished simultaneously through good design, operation, and management strategies. 

On what day in your time at UArizona did you learn the most?

Any day when something goes wrong is when I learn the most. In engineering things go wrong plenty of times, so I’ve learned a lot in my time at the university.

What inspires you the most in your research?

It’s now well-established that greenhouse agriculture is the most viable path forward for vegetable production in many regions of the world, including desert regions like Tucson. Knowing this, I’m motivated to make greenhouses work and look better for the communities that will need to utilize this technology in order to feed their populations. 

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