Forestry Student Using Fulbright for Research in Indonesia

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David R. Holdridge graduates this May as a forestry major, a Distinguished Military Graduate, and a Fulbright recipient.

The Fulbright US Student Program is the largest international exchange program in the country, providing opportunities for study, teaching, and research to create mutual understanding between the US and other countries. More than 2,000 students across the nation are selected each year, with UT Knoxville being named a “Top Producer” of Fulbrighters in recent years.

Upon hearing the news that he received the Fulbright Award, Holdridge was “elated.” He said, “This milestone marks the most significant achievement of my life to date.” Through the Fulbright Program, he will have the support needed to investigate linking the palm oil industry with the reclamation of abandoned surface tin mines on Bangka Belitung Islands, Indonesia.

A Monroe County native, Holdridge grew up hunting, fishing, and spending most of his time outdoors. Wanting to ensure these passions persisted into a career, he chose to major in forestry with a concentration in restoration and conservation science. His path to UT Knoxville was different from a typical prospective student experience.

Holdridge enlisted in the Army out of high school and decided to apply for the Green to Gold program after three years of service. Through this program, he received a scholarship to pursue his degree in forestry and will graduate as a commissioned Army Officer. Holdridge explained, “A part of becoming an Army Officer is representing the US in missions abroad, and the Fulbright is a great opportunity to do that.”

Holdridge first heard about the Fulbright Program in an entomology and plant pathology lab from professor Denita Hadziabdic-Guerry. It was also Hadziabdic-Guerry who encouraged Holdridge to present at EURēCA, which is where he attended the Fulbright interest meeting and learned about research opportunities in Indonesia from his advisor, Jennifer Franklin, professor in the School of Natural Resources.

“Often, the application process felt like a full-time job,” said Holdridge. He spent about thirty hours a week compiling information, went around six to seven rounds of writing personal essays, and frequently sought assistance from the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. All of the hard work paid off, for receiving a nationally recognized fellowship like the Fulbright means he will be recognized at graduation with Distinction in Undergraduate Research and Fellowships.

Using the funding from the Fulbright Program, Holdridge will work with Eddy Nurtjahya, leading expert in restoring Indonesian lands through plants, to find a sustainable solution to soil degradation caused by palm oil farming/production and tin mining. As two of the leading industries in Indonesia, both are contentious in environmental degradation through the mass production of biomass waste material. Holdridge believes that, in the case of palm oil and tin mining, “one issue can be the solution to another.”

More specifically, Holdridge plans “to examine how the addition of oil palm empty fruit bunch (EFB) affects the physiochemical properties of tin-mined soils on Bangka Belitung islands for agricultural potential.” EFB, a type of biomass that results from palm oil production, is typically discarded via incineration. Holdridge’s research would instead use EFB as an additive to tin-mined soils in the hopes of increasing crop potential on degraded lands.

The research project encompasses five elements: a large-scale soil chemistry experiment, a potential agricultural crop viability study, economic and logistical analysis, socioeconomic impacts, and cultural resource use documentation. “By the end of my time in Indonesia, my goal is to raise awareness for the need for increased sustainability in industrial resource extraction, with proof of concept on ways to do so.” Additionally, Holdridge hopes to publish his research findings in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

A key component of the Fulbright Program is “cultural exchange.” Along with conducting his research, Holdridge looks forward to exploring the natural landscapes and experiencing the culture of Bangka Belitung Islands and the surrounding areas. He expressed, “My absolute favorite thing in the world is to be out on a boat fishing and there is so much rich and diverse opportunity for that where I’m headed—from inland mangrove creeks to the big deep blue.”

Along with the Fulbright, Holdridge received the Critical Language Enhancement Award, allowing for three months of additional funding for education to learn the language. After his time in Indonesia and service in the Army, Holdridge hopes to pursue a master’s degree at Yale University in the School of Environment.

Besides his desire to grow professionally, Holdridge hopes his research in Indonesia will allow him to become “an asset to the landscape and the people that depend on it.” He continued, “I ultimately want to be able to advocate for socioeconomic equity in resource extraction, with the main point of this advocacy centered around the need to invest in restoring our landscapes after we have taken from them, and the ability to back this advocacy with good results from a feasibility study.”

Holdridge expressed his gratitude toward Hadziabdic-Guerry and Franklin for their support throughout the Fulbright application process and his entire undergraduate experience. He feels that he has taken what he’s learned in his undergraduate education and directly applied it toward experiences leading to a rewarding career in natural resources.