Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

What a research university is all about

By Rosemary Joyce

In a basement laboratory on the Berkeley campus this week, a graduate student began the process of interviewing applicants for a project included in the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program. This innovative program lets Berkeley undergraduates from across the campus participate in the research of faculty and graduate students, experiencing first-hand the excitement of discovery, and learning just how slow and painstaking research actually is.

Of almost twenty applicants for this project, only about half a dozen will be interviewed. Those selected will have a combination of enthusiasm, relevant coursework, and passion for the topic. They will come from multiple majors, and range from new Berkeley students to seniors taking a last chance to participate in research before graduating.

The project that drew all this interest involves processing soil samples from the Brazilian Amazon, to "go beyond identifying remains of buildings and objects, to see human action even in the very makeup of the soils on sites".

The same day that interviews for assistants for this project began, the Washington Post printed a long article about new interpretations of life in Amazonia that are being put together by researchers like the Berkeley graduate student working with these undergraduate apprentices.

The article described archaeologist Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo of the University of Florida on a site in the Peruvian Amazon, picking through the "dark, nutrient-rich earth made fertile hundreds of years ago by human hands."

"All you can see is an artifact of the past," Oyuela is quoted as saying: "It's a product of human actions."

This is a revolutionary new understanding: vast areas of the Amazonian lowlands, dark brown or black soils, called "terra preta" in Portugese, are now known to have literally been manufactured by human action.

Soil that is not just nature untouched, but a vast human artifact.

Our Berkeley student is part of a project directed by Brazil's Eduardo Neves, whose research the Washington Post article described as documenting

land made fertile by mixing charcoal, human waste and other organic matter with soil. In 15 years of work that is still ongoing they have also found vast orchards of semi-domesticated fruit trees, though they appear like forest untrammeled by man.

The discovery that vast areas of soil in Amazonia were manufactured has led archaeologists to rethink a once-influential claim that the Amazon was largely empty of human populations before Europeans arrived. It has restored interest in early writing by European explorers who described the Amazon as full of densely populated cities, cities invisible today except through the traces they left behind in the soil.

We can let Neves have the final word about the significance of this new research:

"I think we're humanizing the history of the Amazon" ..."We're not looking at the Amazon anymore as a black box. We're seeing that these people were just like anywhere else in the world. We're giving them a sense of history."

The global network producing this critical new research reaches to the Berkeley campus, linking our graduate student and the undergraduates who will work with her to the process of changing our knowledge about the world, its history, and the effects human beings have had on the environment.

Multiply this by more than fifty research projects in the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program.

And that's what a research university is all about.