Alec Kowalewski, Oregon State University's new turf specialist, jokes that two requirements for the job were to have a Polish-sounding last name and to be a graduate of Michigan State University.
That's because he replaces fellow MSU alumnus Rob Golembiewski, who left in March to work for Bayer Environmental Science after coming to OSU in 2008.
Kowalewski, formerly an assistant professor of turf management at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Georgia, began work at OSU on Dec. 31.
He'll divide his time between teaching, researching and working as a specialist with OSU's Extension Service to help the turf grass industry. As the N.B. and Jacqueline Giustina Professor in Turf Management, he is funded in part by an endowment created by the family of OSU alumnus Nat Giustina.
He'll carry out his research on the plots and putting greens at OSU's Lewis-Brown Farm and the Trysting Tree Golf Club near campus. He'll be aided by OSU's Brian McDonald, a research assistant who maintained the turf program after Golembiewski's departure. With golf courses, schools and city park departments tightening their belts, Kowalewski plans to conduct experiments that aim to help them maintain acceptable turf conditions on a budget.
At the same time, he intends for his research to also help them reduce their impact on the environment. For example, he's thinking of testing different varieties of grass that require less irrigation and fertilizer to see which performs the best. Or he might take a look at how naturally derived products like corn gluten meal or soybean meal work as alternatives to pesticides, he said.
"Turf management is really entering what I'd call an environmentally conscious era," he said. "There are a lot of concerns about available resources and the effect management is having on the environment."
Kowalewski (pronounced cove-a-less-key) will also oversee graduate students' research, including a project to control Microdochium patch without chemicals. Caused by a fungus, the disease is associated with rainy, cool conditions and forms spots of discolored, damaged grass.
"Microdochium is a very big problem throughout the Pacific Northwest about eight months out of the year," he said. "Golf course superintendents often lose their jobs over problems like this. It's like being a doctor that can't take care of a patient properly."
The disease is costly to golf courses because they have to buy fungicides and replant the grass. But pesticide regulations are expected to become increasingly restrictive, Kowalewski said, so other options are necessary. As a result, graduate student Clint Mattox will explore a variety of treatment methods, which Kowalewski said could include acidifying the soil, drying the turf with a blower, flattening it with a roller, or applying bicarbonates, sodium borate or mineral oil.
Over the next few months, Kowalewski plans to meet with superintendents, athletic turf managers, landscapers and Extension's Master Gardeners to identify other turf problems in the Pacific Northwest they'd like OSU to address.
Kowalewski brings to the position experience as a professor and researcher. In Georgia, he taught during the school year and conducted field trials in the summer. He tested new cultivars of bermudagrass to see how they grew with limited water, infrequent mowing and minimal fertilizer. He also studied how grasses stood up to heavy foot traffic on athletic fields.
In 2007 and 2008, his job took him to Beijing, China, where he literally watched the grass grow for almost five months. He was serving as an adviser to the company that built the portable athletic field used in the Bird's Nest stadium for the track and field events and the men's soccer final during the Olympics. In a parking lot a few miles from the stadium, a crew grew grass on 4-foot by 4-foot trays filled with 8 inches of soil. Every morning at 6 a.m., he inspected the grass for disease and made sure it had the right amounts of fertilizer and water. Then in August after the opening ceremony, his work paid off when the panels were trucked to the stadium and assembled like a jigsaw puzzle.
As for his own grassy yard at his former home in Georgia, Kowalewski wasn't as attentive.
"It's the worst one on the block. I mowed it probably three to four times a year," he said, assuring that it's no reflection on his professional life. "I think of it as trying to leave work at work."
That, and the fact he's also a busy guy. He hasn't even hit the links in about two years, an irony for someone dedicated to helping the golf industry.
"Two years ago I was at 10 courses visiting interns in the Hilton Head area of South Carolina and didn't get a chance to golf because I was so busy," he said. "People ask me what my hobby is. I say, 'I have a 2 ½-year-old daughter. That's my hobby.' It's hard to go golfing when you spend so much time at work and then to convince the wife that you want to go golfing on Saturday. That's usually not an argument you win."
Actually, turf sports aren't Kowalewski's forte. The Michigan native spent his college years locking opponents in half nelsons on a wrestling mat at MSU. Initially pursuing and later earning an undergraduate degree in studio art, it wasn't until he got a summer job at MSU's turfgrass research center that he decided there were greener pastures outside the studio. He went on to earn a doctorate at MSU in crop and soil sciences with an emphasis on turf management.
"Turf management is a great career," he said. "Young people think of college degrees as business and psychology, but you can make a great living taking care of golf courses, athletic fields, city parks or the grounds on a campus. One of my objectives is to get to high school students and tell them this is a great career to go into."