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NMSU collaborates with Italian university on turfgrass issues

What started out as a friendship formed when two turfgrass specialists went on a conference field trip in Wales has become a unique partnership between New Mexico State University and an Italian university whose students now visit NMSU to share research ideas and issues on turfgrass, irrigation and conservation.

Marco Schiavon, Stefano Macolino, Bernd Leinauer, Ricardo Franchin, Umberto Zilliotto, Matteo Serena, Filippo Rimi and Elena Sevostianova after a guest lecture at the University of Padova. (Photo courtesy of Bernd Leinauer)

Since 2005, Bernd Leinauer, NMSU professor and turgrass specialist, and Stefano Macolino, an assistant professor at the University of Padova, have worked to expose their respective students to the similarities and differences in turfgrass management between their two countries - and also give them a little cultural education in the process.

Leinauer pointed out that the climate and turfgrass selection issues between the two regions are very similar. This has allowed faculty and students from the two institutions to work together on research projects and on publishing their findings.

"In their region, they get a little more rainfall than we do," he said. "However, they have hot summers, and winters that are the same as here. The northern part of Italy has a transition zone climate, which means you can grow warm and cool season plants. They try, just like we do here, to promote the warm season grasses because they use less water and they can be sustained on less irrigation."

Like the southwestern area of the United States, Italy faces salinity issues, Leinauer said. Italy has to deal with saltwater intrusion along the coastal areas while turfgrass in the U.S. faces salinity exposure due to the low-quality water used for irrigation.

As part of the collaboration, Macolino has sent interested undergraduate students to NMSU for summer internships. This year, Leinauer and some of his NMSU graduate students traveled to Italy to give presentations on their turfgrass research at the University of Padova.

Two Italian students enjoyed their internship so much at NMSU that they stayed and are working on doctorate degrees in Las Cruces. Marco Schiavon completed an internship at NMSU in 2008, Matteo Serena in both 2007 and 2008.

"We sure appreciate having them here," Leinauer said. "They are top-quality students, hard working - and they love the climate!"

Schiavon's doctoral research involves investigating the degree of drought and salinity turfgrass can be exposed to and still maintain a sufficient quality for golf courses and sport fields.

"We're trying to switch to saline groundwater to irrigate turf, since the shortage of potable water is forcing our society to develop new strategies for its conservation and priority may have to be given to water uses that are more essential to human society than irrigating recreational turf areas," the graduate student said.

Schiavon said he irrigates his plots of turfgrass less than normal in order to test the drop of quality in drought-stressed plants.

"I got into turfgrass for my master's because I was interested in a branch of agriculture that not only produces food and nutrition for people, but also crosses with landscape planning, creating different kinds of goods for men and then my interest also extends to water conservation. I found out that New Mexico, and in particular the Las Cruces area, is a perfect place to combine my general interest in turfgrass sciences with research in water conservation strategies," he said.

Leinauer's ultimate goal is to turn this collaborative effort into a full exchange program that includes regular internship opportunities for NMSU students in Italy. Limited funding and resources to prepare students - interested students would have to be fluent in Italian - have hampered the efforts.

Lowell Catlett, dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, said he, too, wants to see the program expand and added that he relies on the global connections of his wonderful faculty in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences to help build relationships.

"We'll get to the point of expanding this project," Catlett said. "This is just the beginning for some great collaboration in the future."

"It is important for students to travel, to open themselves up to different cultures and experience different countries," Leinauer said. "I honestly think that people who travel and experience different people and cultures become more tolerant and generally better people."

Through the NMSU-Padova relationship, Leinauer said, students from Italy have been able to come to NMSU with knowledge that our turfgrass specialists were unaware of. He said we have to rely on that exchange of information to keep up to date on the latest research and technology available, not only here but also in other parts of the world.

"Almost everything we do these days has global implications," Catlett said. "The economy is truly global for the United States, especially in terms of our agricultural commodities and natural resource areas, such as turfgrass. It is absolutely imperative that we be ourselves and be global. It's important that we collaborate with the other great scientists around the world to make sure that what we are doing is translated and that what they are doing gets translated back to us. Without collaboration in the global world, we simply cannot operate."