Posted by: Adam Kay | February 28, 2013

Undergraduate Scientists Making a Difference: A report on sustainability science in the Biology Department at the University of St. Thomas

UST Bio studentsCalling all biology-oriented students thinking about where to go to university – here is a post for you!

The Biology Department at the University of St. Thomas is a national leader for undergraduate-led research. We invest a lot in our teaching, but we also are committed to our research with the aim of making an impact on our field (see our recent publications here). Unlike at many larger schools, undergraduate students in our department play leading roles in our research programs. In fact, many of our students present their research at national meetings and co-author papers with their faculty mentors. We strive to create an exceptional environment for students interested in learning how to be the research leaders of tomorrow.

Sustainability is a topic that is getting more attention in our research, our teaching, and our service.  We are excited about continuing the development of this work in the years to come. Our success will depend in large part on the partnerships that we form with students that enter into our program. Below are a few examples of research and teaching projects related to sustainability:

IMAG0213Dr. Jennifer McGuire and her research group investigate issues related to water quality in freshwater environments such as lakes, wetlands and drinking water aquifers. Their interests include chemical fate and transport, applied environmental toxicology, and reactive multi-phase numerical modeling.  One of their current projects is to quantify the rates at which natural processes, primarily bacterial activity, breakdown hydrocarbons from crude oil under various conditions.  Findings from this work help to improve our ability to find cost-effective clean-up strategies for oil spills.

IMG_3651Dr. Kyle Zimmer and his team work on a variety of questions related to the ecology of aquatic systems, with a particular emphasis on Minnesota lakes. The lab has four current projects involving UST students.  The first is assessing the relative impact of watershed features versus fish community composition on ecosystem characteristics in Minnesota shallow lakes. The second is testing the hypothesis that shallow lakes dominated by submerged plants sequester more atmospheric CO2 than do lakes dominated by algae. The third project is testing for differences in the ecological niches of different types of cisco, an important forage fish in Minnesota threated by climate change and nutrient loading. Lastly, this summer his lab will start a project that will assess how zebra mussels alter the pathway of energy flow and predator-prey dynamics in a Minnesota lake.

Students planting oak trees for the Fish Creek project

Students planting oak trees for the Fish Creek project

Drs. Simon Emms (Biology), Tim Lewis (Biology), and Paul Lorah (Geography) are working on project aimed at both restoring natural habitats and capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to help offset UST’s carbon footprint. The project is restoring oak woodland, savanna, and prairie on river bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in Maplewood. It is being done in collaboration with Ramsey County, the city of Maplewood, and Great River Greening. It’s being funded by UST’s Campus Sustainability Fund. In 2012, over 200 UST students participated in planting trees as part of courses in the Biology and Geography Departments. The project will also allow current and future generations of students to carry out research on ecological changes that occur on the site as the forest regrows, and to study how different varieties of oak trees perform in the face of ongoing habitat and climate change.

Dr. Dalma Martinovic-Weigelt and her students conduct research on occurrence and effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals and other chemicals of emerging concern (e.g., pharmaceuticals, personal care products) in aquatic environments. The objective of this research is to develop approaches to evaluate whether these chemicals present threats to ecological and human health. Our research has a strong laboratory component and uses technologically advanced approaches (e.g., genomics, bioinformatics) . While we conduct some research in pristine, idyllic settings we are more likely to be found researching urban streams and wastewater. One of our more unappealing field sites is depicted in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle – a book about the meatpacking plants of the Chicago stockyards.

scenes from the UST Stewardship Garden

Scenes from the UST Stewardship Garden

Dr. Adam Kay conducts research with UST students on ecology and sustainable agriculture. Some of his work focuses on the community ecology of ants in tropical rainforests; one part of this work led by UST student Jane Lucas, has examined how ants influence connections between tropical forest canopies and tropical soils. Another part of his lab’s work investigates how environmental phosphorus can influence the ecology and evolution of freshwater snails in New Zealand. Work closer to home combines research on urban agriculture with community service. One of these projects is the UST Stewardship Garden, which combines student-led research on urban agriculture, educational activities, campus outreach, and produce donations to local food shelves. He and current student Taylor Schuweiler are developing the Corner Store Procurement project, which involves testing ecological hypotheses in the UST greenhouse while generating produce for the Minnesota Health and Human Services Corner Store Program.

Dr. Chip Small and his students are conducting research on the fate of nutrient pollution in the St. Louis River Estuary and Lake Superior, combining field measurements, laboratory experiments, satellite imagery, and computer simulations. They are also working on a project in Costa Rica to understand how climate change affects the chemistry and ecology of tropical streams.

One of the products from the Youth Farms service project

One of the products from the Youth Farms service project

UST Biology also has several teaching experiences related to sustainability. Our sophomore level class, The Biology of Sustainability, conducted a service-learning lab to assess soil quality and gardening practices for our community partner, the Youth Farm and Market Project. Youth Farms is a Twin Cities organization that provides experiential education and training activities for over 600 youths organized around the themes of urban agriculture and local food production. UST students collected samples from 13 urban farms in the Youth Farms program and analyzed soil samples for nutrients, heavy metals, and other measures of soil quality. Students then analyzed and summarized the results, and prepared products to disseminate their findings. They produced a variety of products including prezis, web sites, brochures, handouts, and posters. There was even a children’s book and a board game! (see the previous blog post on this event here). It was both productive and really fun.

Dr. Chip Small’s Urban Ecosystem Ecology class explores how cities function as ecosystems.  They are conducting a study for the City of Saint Paul through CityLabs, assessing the feasibility of using community gardens as neighborhood compost sites.  For another project, they have designed a series of experiments involving vermicomposting and aquaponics, using food waste to produce worms, worms to produce tilapia, and fish waste to grow basil. A great video and full blog post about that project is here. They are also involved in an interdisciplinary, collaborative project along with courses in environmental studies, videography, and dance, working with the Ordway Theater and the Pilobulus Dance Company to create an original dance piece exploring how humans interact with the built and natural environments.

UST students after building erosion dams at Mokolodi, Botswana

UST students after building erosion dams at Mokolodi, Botswana

Dr. Jill Manske’s traveled to Botswana in January. As part of the course, they did a service day at Mokolodi Nature Preserve where they built these dams to help control erosion of top soil during the rainy season. The dams are fashioned from the branches of Acacia trees (which are invasive, so this is also useful in clearing them since they shade out the grasses and low plants) and bunches of grass which were tied into bundles.

Dr. Adam Kay and Tony Lewno’s class, Introduction to Field Ecology, traveled throughout Costa Rica in January 2012. The class focuses on original student-led research projects in remote locations. One place the class visited was a sustainable community in Cerro de la Muerte in the Talamanca range in Costa Rica. For more information about this great experience, see here and here. Note that they’ll be heading back to Cerro and other parts of Costa Rica with a new group of students in 2014.

Students working on a trout farm in Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica

Students working on a trout farm in Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica

All of this work is fueled by student enthusiasm and will. We hope we’ll be able to continue to attract motivated students to help us continue these and other sustainability projects.

For more information, visit our department Facebook page and other posts on this blog.


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