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Project Descriptions

Project A. Examining the effects of global change on streams of the northeastern US

Mentors: Audrey Thellman (Cary Institute), Emma Rosi (Cary Institute)

Global change manifests in various ways. In the Northeastern US, climate change is leading to earlier and more prolonged springs, warmer water temperatures, and more frequent summer storms. Also, the legacy of acid deposition has left some streams of the Northeastern US extremely dilute, with stream water that is nearly equivalent to deionized water. At the Hubbard Brook LTER, we have collected long-term data on aquatic insects to investigate the influence of climate-associated changes and stream water chemistry across an array of experimental watersheds. The REU student will develop a research project investigating how stream ecosystems are responding to long-term changes associated with global change using previously collected samples of aquatic insects, and long-term water chemistry records while at Cary, with an opportunity to do some supplemental field research at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Project B. The role of natural enemies in governing symbiotic nitrogen fixation

Mentors: Sarah Batterman (Cary Institute), Michelle Wong (Cary Institute)

Symbiotic nitrogen fixation brings large quantities of new nitrogen into ecosystems, alleviating nitrogen limitation, stimulating plant growth, and enhancing ecosystem carbon storage. However, it is unclear why nitrogen-fixing trees are not more abundant in forests when the benefit of fixation can be considerable. The limited abundance of nitrogen-fixing trees in tropical and temperate forests might be due to the natural enemies they attract, like herbivorous insects or mammals. The REU student will examine this hypothesis by a combination of a greenhouse experiment with nitrogen-fixing species, collecting field data from Northeastern forests, or analyzing existing data. Results from this project will contribute to a broader understanding of the evolution and function of symbiotic nitrogen fixation in forests and the importance of nitrogen-fixing trees for mitigating climate change.

Project C. Causes of anthropogenic nitrogen deposition and impacts on tropical forest function

Mentors: Michelle Wong (Cary Institute) and Sarah Batterman (Cary Institute)

Anthropogenic activities, such as the production of ammonium-based fertilizers, burning of fossil fuels, and fires, have dramatically accelerated rates of global nitrogen deposition, with detrimental impacts on ecosystems such as eutrophication and nitrogen oxide emissions. While it’s generally thought that tropical forests are pristine ecosystems isolated from anthropogenic nitrogen inputs, forest fires and agricultural development are likely increasing nitrogen pollution there too. Furthermore, the impacts of nitrogen pollution, which are well-characterized in other ecosystems, are poorly understood in tropical forests. The REU student will address this issue by analyzing precipitation samples from the southeastern Amazon and studying the impact of regional forest and savanna fires on rates of nitrogen deposition. Additionally, the student will also quantify the effect of excess nitrogen on plant function and plant-fungi symbioses in tropical forests, and/or asking new questions on the causes of and impacts on nitrogen deposition in tropical forests by building models using existing datasets depending on the student’s interests. Results from this project will contribute to a broader understanding of the anthropogenic perturbation of global biogeochemical cycles and ecosystem responses.

Project D. Mosquitoes and ecosystem regulation of disease risk: data visualization and analysis

Mentor: Shannon LaDeau (Cary Institute)

Managing human risk associated with mosquito exposure requires understanding how mosquito populations grow and behave in human-dominated landscapes. The REU student will use existing data to explore statistical and data visualization methods to investigate how environmental variables that reflect human presence (e.g., stormwater management practices, heat island, road salt, nitrogen) alter mosquito ecology and human exposure risk. Some experimental work is also possible. Students with some background in data science or statistics and interest in disease ecology are best suited for this project.

Project E. Quantifying spatial variation and ecological influences of groundwater fluxes in lakes of northern Wisconsin (University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center)

Mentors: Chris Solomon (Cary Institute), Zion Klos (Marist College)

The spatial variation in the amount of groundwater moving in and out of lakes is poorly understood at a fine scale. An understanding of this fine-scale spatial variation across a single lake system would allow a better understanding of other fine-scale spatial effects and the potential resilience of similar systems to external changes. Using a regional set of lakes in northern Wisconsin, we will use seepage meters to quantify high-spatial-resolution variation in groundwater fluxes in lakes to understand the ecological impacts of this variation. REU students will focus mainly on the hydrological measurements of groundwater fluxes, but investigations into the effects of this variation on known distributions of sub-aquatic vegetation, benthic species, and microbial communities may be possible. REU students can design and conduct field surveys and use mathematical and spatial analyses to quantify volumetric exchange rates and direction, and how they vary spatially within lake-scale systems. Work on this project will provide students knowledge of basic limnological practices and advanced forms of hydrology research. Furthermore, the student will be a part of a team of people working on-site in Wisconsin for approximately half of the duration of the REU to answer a diverse set of questions about other aspects of lake ecology. Students interested in natural resource management, physical hydrology, aquatic ecology, and GIS would be good candidates for this position.

Project F. Ecological change in the Sky Lakes on the Shawangunk Ridge

Mentors: David Richardson (SUNY New Paltz), Kathleen Weathers (Cary Institute)

External forcings (e.g., acid rain, climate change, and introduced species) can cause ecological and biogeochemical shifts in lake ecosystems. The REU student will use field surveys, experiments, and data analysis to understand ecosystem change in the Sky Lakes (Minnewaska, Mohonk, and Awosting) on the Shawangunk Ridge. Awosting (Minnewaska State Park Preserve) is the biggest of the sky lakes and is an oligotrophic, clear-water lake with no fish observed in >100 years. Mohonk is a clear mesotrophic lake and has had fish in the lake for years, including trout and other species stocked for visitors to the Mohonk Mountain House. Minnewaska, a historically clear, fishless, oligotrophic lake, has several substantial changes over the past 20 years, including increases in pH and unintentional introduction of Notemigonus crysoleucas (Golden Shiners, a small zooplanktivorous minnow) and Micropterus salmoides (largemouth bass). The student will have an opportunity to explore bottom-up vs. top-down controls on primary production and lake clarity and modification of nutrient cycling using these lakes as study systems.

Project G. Understanding the intersection of global change, conservation, and disease risk

Mentors: Barbara Han (Cary Institute) and Ilya Fischhoff (Cary Institute)

Managing landscapes for public health and biodiversity requires understanding how global changes and conservation influence diseases that humans may acquire from wildlife. The REU student will apply statistical and machine learning methods to discover how wildlife responses to global changes interact with conservation actions to shape disease risk. The student will explore aspects of climate variability, land-use change, and animal movement and behavior concerning differentially managed protected areas. Students with a background in data science, programming, and statistics, and interests in disease ecology and conservation are well-suited to this project.

Project H. Microbial processes in urban ecosystems

Mentor: Peter Groffman (Cary Institute)

The maintenance of “natural” microbial nutrient cycling processes in urban ecosystems is important to the functioning of these systems. REU students can select from several different projects that are part of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES-LTER), a long-term study of Baltimore, Maryland. These include the effects of exotic species on soil nutrient cycling processes; microbial processes in urban riparian forests; and nutrient cycling in forest, agricultural, and residential areas within the city.

Project I. Examining the impacts of road salt on groundwater used for drinking water

Mentors: Victoria Kelly (Cary Institute), Kevin Burgio (Cary Institute)

Road salt is often found in groundwater, a source of drinking water for many in the Northeastern US. The impact of landscape features on road salt in drinking water and how concentrations change seasonally is a rapidly developing field. While there is some evidence that road salt in groundwater may affect lead and other heavy metals in drinking water, this phenomenon has not been well-studied. The REU student will use GIS and other analytical tools to examine the associations between landscape features and lead, other heavy metals, and road salt in drinking water wells. Also, there will be an opportunity for the student to do some fieldwork to examine the seasonal changes in concentrations in groundwater. The project will involve the digitization of publicly available data, GIS analysis, and field measurements.

Project J. Urban forest ecology in New York City

Mentors: Timon McPhearson (The New School), Elizabeth Cook (The New School), Steward Pickett (Cary Institute), and Bianca Lopez (The New School)

The MillionTreesNYC Afforestation Study is a long-term experiment tracking the growth, survival, and other ecological effects of tree planting in New York City parks initiated with partners at Columbia University and NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation. With nearly 40 long-term subplots in Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island, this experiment offers a unique opportunity to understand the effectiveness and ecological effects of urban afforestation efforts and their impacts on climate. The REU student will assist with long-term soil and plant data collection and conduct independent research related to understanding urban ecosystems and designing sustainable urban environments. Potential research areas include estimating carbon sequestration rates of trees and soil following afforestation to address the contributions of urban tree plantings to mitigating cities’ contributions to climate change, analyzing the response of native and invasive plants to afforestation and different tree diversity treatments, or measuring plant trait and functional diversity responses to different soil characteristics.

Project K. Effect of undergraduate research experiences on career trajectories

Mentors: Kevin Burgio (Cary Institute), Alan Berkowitz (Cary Institute)

Undergraduate research experiences are thought to have long-lasting effects on students in many different ways, including the broadening of skill sets and solidifying a sense of identity as a scientist. The Cary Institute has been an active NSF REU site since the mid-1980s, compiling 30+ years of student and alumni survey data, providing a unique opportunity to explore both the short-, medium-, and long-term effects of research experiences on the careers of those who have done them. The REU student will work with the project mentors to develop hypotheses based on education theory and test them using some combination of interviews and surveys as well as quantitative and qualitative analyses. This project will best suit students interested in education research, developing cutting-edge analytical skills, and gaining experience in publishing research.

Project L. Ecology of urban streams / high school student mentoring

Mentor: Stuart E.G. Findlay (Cary Institute)

Urban streams have been under-studied relative to streams in other land-use settings, yet they are likely to have dramatic differences in chemistry, habitat availability, and function. Moreover, urban streams, by definition, occur in densely populated areas but rarely are considered valuable local natural resources by the surrounding communities. The REU student will design and carry out a study of stream attributes using local urban and reference streams in the region. The student also will help mentor and work with a team that includes a high school teacher and four local high school students to develop and implement an associated research project during a six-week summer research experience program. The REU student will conduct her/his independent project and also gain experience collaborating with a teacher and serving as a mentor for a younger group of students.