Blog Education

Senior’s pursuit of a degree heats up

A student from Dr. Cindy Smith‘s undergraduate environmental science course was recently interviewed for GMU’s news. Distance learning has been a challenging for the whole university, but PEREC faculty and students  have gone out of their way to find new and unique learning opportunities.


Smith said she had several students who expanded the original assignment. She attributes that to the remote learning forced by the pandemic.

“They have to locate their own study sites,” Smith said, “and because they set up their own, they have to think more critically about how they collect their data and what their results might mean for human and environmental health.”

“Dr. Smith and [teaching assistant and Mason PhD student] Chelsea Gray have been incredible throughout this whole thing,” O’Keefe said. “They’re involved, supportive and proactive, and they connect to their class.”


Read the rest here:


Blog Education

Water Quality Data Mapping

Every year, we conduct research that helps us create a water quality “data map” of the Potomac. Here’s a video depicting what that research is like.

Blog In the News

Hunting Creek Research

Alexandria Renew Enterprises featured our Hunting Creek research in a recent video.

RiverRenew on Vimeo.


Graduate Student Awarded Boren Fellowship

Dr. Kim de Mutsert’s Graduate student, Sara Marriott, has been awarded a Boren fellowship, which will allow her to include fieldwork in the Philippines as part of her dissertation research.

From Sara:

“Boren Awards are made up of three parts, Language, Culture and Service. Through this fellowship, I will have the opportunity to travel to the Philippines for six months to study Tagalog and conduct research. My Ph.D. research is on social-ecological systems in small-scale fishery management in the Philippines, in which part of my research will be interviewing fishers and community members to better understand how community-based management practices work. Small-scale fisheries make up a large portion of unreported or under-regulated fishing and researching ways to make this sector more sustainable is important for both ecosystems and livelihoods of fishers. Finally, upon graduation, Boren Fellows are required to spend a year of service in the federal government, bringing their experiences and knowledge gained from the fellowship into US policy. This fellowship excites me because I hold stakeholder engagement as a core tenant. It is easy to just look at the numbers of fish biomass to determine impact, but in doing that I believe that you miss a large portion of the story of how and why different management/governance structures are or are not working. Having the opportunity to live in my study area working directly with fishers for six months is a dream come true in addition to enhancing my research outcomes.”

Congratulations Sara, we can’t wait to see where this takes you!

Blog In the News

35-Year Study of Gunston Cove Published

For 35 years, Dr. Chris Jones has sampled Gunston Cove, a tributary to the Potomac. He has recently published a long-term study, tracking the ecosystem’s recovery. The results of his research indicate that submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) have returned (previously, there was none) as a result of increased water clarity. SAV provide important habitats for fish and invertebrates in the Potomac River. While there is still a long-way to go, this study demonstrates that it is possible to recover ecosystems that have been damaged by pollution. You can read Recovery of a Tidal Freshwater Embayment from Eutrophication: a Multidecadal Study here.


Effective management of eutrophication in tidal ecosystems requires a thorough understanding of the dynamics of their responses to decreases in nutrient loading. We analyze a 34-year dataset on a shallow embayment of the tidal freshwater Potomac River, Gunston Cove, for long-term responses of ambient nutrient levels, light transparency measures, phytoplankton biomass, and coverage of submersed aquatic vegetation (SAV) to decreased nutrient loading. Point source loading of phosphorus, the nutrient most limiting primary production in this system, was greatly curtailed coincident with the study onset (1983/84) exhibiting a sharp decrease of 95% from peak loading levels. However, water column total phosphorus decreased much more slowly and gradually. Phytoplankton chlorophyll a did not show a distinctive decrease until 2000 and SAV responded strongly beginning in 2004. The habitat suitability model for SAV developed by Chesapeake Bay researchers was able to explain the recovery of SAV coverage based on data on light transparency and basin morphometry collected in this study. The study results were consistent with the alternative stable state theory with a sharp transition from a phytoplankton-dominated “turbid water” state to an SAV-dominated “clear water” state in a 2-year period from 2003 to 2005. The system eventually responded to nutrient load reductions, but the nonlinear and incomplete nature of this recovery and the two-decade delay illustrate the complexities of managing these systems.

Blog In the News

Student Accomplishments

Congratulations to the students of Dr. Kim De Mutsert on the following accolades:

Students and Dr. De Mutsert at the ecopath conference
L-R: Casey Pehrson, Dr. Kristy Lewis (University of Central Florida), Dr. Kim de Mutsert, Sara Marriott, and Sammie Alexander.

Sara Marriott was awarded a prestigious SESYNC Graduate Pursuit Fellowship, which is an an 18-month fellowship in which she is part of an interdisciplinary team that will be researching “A socio-environmental approach to improve offshore aquaculture and policy: Gulf of Mexico case study.” It supports travel and meetings to conduct research, provides access to SESYNC workshops and resources, as well as a stipend/honorarium of $2,000.

Sammie Alexander received a $5,000 program development award from Virginia Sea Grant for her project: “Assessment of fish passage use and success in facilitating movement of regionally vulnerable and invasive fish species in northern Virginia portion of the Potomac River.” This is the second award she has received from VA Sea Grant.

Kate Russel with her winning poster

Casey Pehrson was awarded the Robert D. Ross Graduate Scholarship in fisheries and related aquatic sciences from the Virginia Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. She received the second place award, which comes with a $250 check.

Katie Russell won the best undergraduate poster award at the Virginia Chapter of the Wildlife Society Conference that was held this week.


Are We Effecting Fishes’ Hormones?

Written by: Michael Cagle

As a Master’s student, I am looking into the presence of endocrine disruptors in the Potomac River. The endocrine system regulates virtually every activity in animals through the use of chemical compounds called hormones, and plays a vital role in the reproductive system. Specifically, I am looking at compounds that interfere with the normal functioning of the reproductive system by mimicking or disrupting the naturally occurring hormones testosterone and estrogen.

Blog Education OSCAR

Being an Ecologist

Written By: Michael Rollins; Photo Credit: Sammie Alexander

Figure 1. Mason Senior Michael Rollins slowly submerges his macroinvertebrate bottle trap with assistance of PEREC team member Heather Nortz in Gunston Cove, VA

You would never think that drinking 16 liters of soda would be key to being an ecologist. I didn’t either. As a George Mason University senior, finishing my degree in environmental science with a concentration in marine, estuarial, and freshwater ecology, I am participating in an OSCAR undergraduate summer research project.


Looking for Summer Research Opportunities?

Update: Applications are closed, and applicants are currently being considered. The project has received a further $12,000 from Patriot Green Fund

Paid Summer Research OpportunityPEREC 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?

Potomac Science CEnter
The brand new Potomac Science Center where students will conduct their research

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.

Not only will students demonstrate if micropollutants are present, the two different areas might help identify how much they are related to anthropogenic (human) inputs. A food web study, a watershed analysis, and a science communication component will complement the ecotoxicology research to better understand the source and fate of micropollutants in the Potomac River watershed.

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 ( 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.