PEREC faculty Amy Fowler and Kim de Mutsert are currently looking for dedicated undergraduates to participate in a one of a kind research experience. The paid, 10-week summer program will give students the unique experience of collaborating with experienced faculty in research and scientific communication.
What kind of research will students be doing?
Students will assess biological and chemical aspects of two Potomac locations, Hunting Creek and Gunston Cove. PEREC faculty has sampled both of these regions, but the OSCAR research study will be the first of its kind.
While each student will focus on one specific area of research, together each project will look at the effects of micropollutants, such as mercury, in the food web. Students will collect data on the population of invertebrates, fishes, and zooplankton in the river. This is considered a good indicator of overall ecosystem health, as “sensitive” organisms are less likely to be found when there are pollutants present. A high diversity of organisms is also indicative of a healthy ecosystem.
Students will also test the river bottom to see if there are any micropollutants present, and if so, how deep in the sediment? When compared to the biological data, students will be able to determine if there is a correlation between less pollution and more organism diversity.
Not only will students get to help design and implement a research project, they will also get to participate in community outreach. Students will get to hone their oral communication skills through two oral presentations, and will also get experience writing a scientific report.
Why is this research important?
Studies have demonstrated that micropollutants (substances which are toxic in small doses) can build up in the environment, whether that be the sediment, or through the food chain. Bioaccumulation is when animals higher up in the food change have higher amounts of micropollutants, due to the fact that they consume many small organisms (such as zooplankton) that have consumed pollutants.
While few people swim in the Potomac River or eat the fish from there, the Potomac is a Chesapeake Bay watershed. There is a strong change that micropollutants found in the Potomac can make their way to the Bay, where many people spend their summers fishing and swimming.
How is it funded?
Dr. Fowler and Dr. De Mutsert have both successfully teamed up to earn two grants to fund student research.
From the Virginia Sea Grant, $5,000 were awarded to support student summer research. Dr. Fowler and Dr. De Mutsert have also won an impressive $38,000 from the OSCAR Summer Team Project Grant.
Dr. Fowler is especially excited for the summer, because she is a new faculty member, and can’t wait to meet new undergrads, who she hopes to mentor “as early as possible” in their academic career.
“Mentoring makes me a better teacher and a better scientist… I really enjoy helping students become better researcher, even if that’s not what they end up doing, you can always look at the world through the lens of a scientist, you can always question the world.”
Dr. De Mutsert is excited that the Potomac Science Center will immediately be used to its full potential:
“A summer research experience in aquatic science ideally takes place in an off-campus research facility right on the water. I am really excited we are able to offer that. We have an interdisciplinary team of scientists including geologists, chemists, ecologists, and science communication experts together in the same building that are involved in this project, and are mentoring the students. We can be on the water when we want to, and plan to be on a boat with the students at least once a week.”
Both agree that this summer experience will prepare students for a future as a scientist, as it will strengthen their communication skills in a way class labs are not able to. Scientists are always writing proposals, grants, and preparing lectures. This summer research experience will give them the skills and confidence to do these effectively.
What is the future of this program?
This pilot program will hopefully open the door for further research experience for undergraduates. While the 2017 summer program is currently only open to George Mason students, PEREC hopes to open up it up to undergraduates nation wide.
If this initial program is successful, it may open the door for funding from the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/). This will allow PEREC to accept undergraduates from all over the country for their research program. As the Potomac Science Center is the only center located on a Freshwater Tidal river, it would be a unique, and invaluable opportunity for any young scientist.
Interested students can apply here.