The Grass Is Always Greener: Turf Research in the Year of Covid

May 10, 2021

It’s been over a year since the University community pivoted to remote operations, with many staff working from home for the first time in their careers. We spoke with turfgrass researcher Florence Sessoms about her projects and what it was like to conduct research during a pandemic. 

Sessoms is originally from Paris, where turfgrass might not seem like a plentiful part of the landscape, but she argues otherwise: “It’s really everywhere. It’s all around us in playgrounds and parks.” But turfgrass is often written off as time- and resource-consuming. It requires regular watering and fertilizing to obtain the ideal appearance. Sessoms’ goal is to find turfgrass that thrives in less-than-ideal conditions. “I’m trying to promote certain species that can perform better in certain environments, like in those urban places such as Paris.” Or, perhaps, somewhere closer to Minnesota, like parks, verges, and roadsides. Sessoms’ recent project partners with MnDOT to address the effects of heat stress on roadside turf. “You want a plant that can resist those warmer temperatures, establish, and perform well,” Sessoms explains, “especially on the side of a road where you might run into other problems such as erosion which would, in turn, affect the condition of the road.” Sessoms’ work aims to improve the characteristics of turfgrass to be able to handle heat stress and drought and to thrive with less regular watering.

Summers are big for turfgrass research and last summer meant dealing with Covid restrictions. Most of the Turf Team was able to continue their projects outside in research plots, which meant many projects did not need to be put on hold. However, new Covid restrictions meant the team had to consider other methods of research, like at-home data analysis. “It was a really productive time for us as a group,” Sessoms explained. “We published quite a few papers and have a few grants in the works. I know not all labs were as fortunate as ours. It also helps that a lot of what we do is outside.” 

With schools and summer camps closed, many scientists and researchers found their work lives overlapping with their home lives, creating new opportunities to share their expertise. “I showed my daughters to the turfgrass I work on,” Sessoms said. “It was really great for them to see this mysterious turfgrass that I sometimes disappear to go be with. Seeing my research and my work made it more real for them, and my eldest is now saying she would like to go into turfgrass research!” 

With increased vaccination rates and dramatically expanding vaccine eligibility, the University community is starting to plan for its post-Covid return to campus. For many, nothing compares to the accessibility of being in the lab, but others are returning to their pre-Covid workspaces with a wealth of new skills and creativity, developed during a year of unexpected twists. “Despite all the events that have happened in 2020, I am grateful for this year as my family stayed safe and healthy and my work continued to flourish with papers accepted, grants funded, and blogs posted” Sessoms reflected.