UMFK professors receive science program grant

FORT KENT, Maine –The University of Maine at Fort Kent has announced that faculty members Drs. Kennedy “Ned” Rubert-Nason and Peter Nelson were recently awarded $130,000 from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund Small Campus Initiative (MEIF-SCI) program and $149,617 from the University of Maine System Program Innovation Fund. 

The awarded funds to go toward the purchase of specialized equipment and paid internship positions for students.

Their project titled, “Using remotely-sensed hyperspectral data to predict visible, physiological and phytochemical indicators of forest health,” aims to develop a computer program for identifying sick trees from aerial photographs taken by unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). Cutting-edge laboratory and field equipment purchased for this project will also provide hands-on training opportunities for students in forestry, biology, and environmental sciences.

“Creating the computer program for identifying unhealthy trees requires that spectral properties of aerial photographs (think RBG color patterning) be linked to visual and chemical indicators of tree health,” said Dr. Nelson. “Gathering the reference data will require looking at trees in the field (for insect and fungal damage), and collecting physiological and chemical measurements on leaves from those trees using specialized instrumentation.”

The grant provides funds to purchase a Licor-6800 photosynthesis analysis instrument and a high performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC), both of which will be used to obtain those measurements. Funding also creates five paid 12-week summer internships for undergraduate students from UMFK and/or the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI) to gain experience obtaining, organizing, and matching plant health data to their respective photograph spectra, as well as computational modeling. 

These internships will give students the opportunity to hone their skills in forest health assessment, drone operation, laboratory assays of plant chemical composition, and use of specialized laboratory equipment such as HPLC–all of which will prepare students for careers in forestry, biotechnology, research, or graduate study in the environmental/life sciences.

“Having the Licor-6800 and HPLC will create new hands-on training opportunities for undergraduate students seeking careers in forestry, biotechnology, and environmental studies,” said Dr. Rubert-Nason. “Operation of the Licor-6800 will be incorporated into Dr. Nelson’s plant science courses at UMFK.” 

“Drs. Rubert-Nason and Nelson are creative and successful in conducting relevant research, and in providing cutting-edge learning experiences for their students,” said Dr. Tex Boggs, UMFK interim president/provost. “This new equipment will give them the opportunity to conduct research that will help protect our natural resources and our way of life, and the internships will enable their students to develop skills that will help them gain admission to graduate programs at prestigious research institutions and/or lead them into careers that will be satisfying and rewarding.”

In order to broaden the educational reach on this topic, Dr. Rubert-Nason is partnering with Dr. Michael Knopp at UMPI to jointly teach a course titled, “Liquid chromatography for environmental and life scientists,” which will provide students foundational knowledge of analytical chemistry and hands-on training in HPLC. That course is scheduled to debut during the 2021-2022 academic year. 

For more information on the sciences and research at UMFK, go to or call (207) 834-7500.

Submitted by the Marketing and Communication Office of the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

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