Graduate Student Spotlight: Sam Norton, MS Environmental Studies ‘20

University of Charleston, S.C. student Sam Norton wants to expand the ways we farm.

Sam, a first year student in the Master of Science in Environmental Studies Program, has wasted no time getting his feet wet working on his thesis. Before the start of his first full-time semester, he was awarded a $25,000 grant for his research through the South Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Agribusiness Center for Research & Entrepreneurship (ACRE) Program. The ACRE program is a new initiative that seeks to increase market opportunities for South Carolina agribusinesses and farmers, with Sam being one of the first recipients.

With funding from ACRE, Sam plans to study how terrestrial saltwater farming could be brought to the Lowcountry through Salicornia bigelovii., otherwise known as ‘sea beans’ or ‘sea pickle’. The Salicornia plant is already the subject of immense study, with companies like Boeing and GE researching the seeds as a potential source of biofuels.

Salicornia bigelovii are quite rare in the salt marshes of the Lowcountry, but Sam saw them as a great candidate for terrestrial saltwater farming after first learning about the biofuel application during a class project during his time earning his undergraduate degree in Political Science from the College of Charleston, a class that just happened to be taught by the Environmental Studies Graduate Program Director, Dr. Annette Watson.

“In doing research for the class,” Sam explains. “I looked up Salicornia and realized they were successfully making biofuel with this plant that I used to eat as a kid at camp.”

This initial partnership between Sam and Dr. Watson helped foster Sam’s terrestrial saltwater farming idea, and introduced Sam to the graduate-level program. After spending the Spring 2018 semester as a non-degree seeking student, Sam applied for and was accepted into the program starting in the Summer of 2018.

Salicornia bigelovii. Photo Credit:

Through his standing as a graduate student, Sam has been able to make connections with organizations like Lowcountry Local First, Charleston Fab Lab, Clemson Extension, East Cooper Land Trust and Local Works, and Charleston Aquatics to provide assistance or support for his project.

“Being a graduate student in the Environmental Studies program has opened up a lot of doors for me.” Sam says. “It gives you the credibility that’s backed up by a program with high esteem and standing.”

With the ACRE grant, Sam has already begun to build a saltwater greenhouse to grow the Salicornia plants, as well as develop a method for cultivation that can be applied throughout the Lowcountry and beyond in terms of agriculture as well as marsh restoration.

The ACRE grant has the potential be doubled throughout Sam’s thesis project, with the earliest opportunity for additional funding occurring at the end of September 2018. He hopes that his thesis work will contribute to the field of terrestrial saltwater farming around the globe.

To learn more about the ACRE program, visit . For more information on the Master of Science Environmental Studies at UCSC, visit

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