Snowflakes, Dragonflies and Oysters: Students Explore Our Natural World Through Summer Research

September 19, 2016


Dan Stone ’18 is working with Dan Rogers, assistant professor of chemistry, on a project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Sea Grant

Changes in snowfall because of global warming. Evolving emergence patterns of dragonflies and damselflies. Oysters as a tool in remediation of polluted coastal ponds. It’s not a table of contents from the journal Nature, but rather a sampling of the meaningful projects 50 students took on this summer with 25 faculty members in the Stonehill Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE).

Through SURE, undergraduate students gain research experience typically not seen beyond the walls of graduate programs at research universities. Paired with faculty members, the students are immersed in scientific research methods and collect data. They frequently publish results in professional journals or present at regional and national conferences. Upon graduation, SURE participants have an existing body of research that gives them a leg up when it comes time to find a job or enter graduate school.

“I think of us as small and mighty,” says Kristin Burkholder, professor of environmental science and studies. “We’re asking really interesting questions and adding good work to the scientific literature.”

Does a Warmer Planet Make More Snow?

Burkholder worked with Hayley Bibaud ’17 this summer to study changes in snow accumulation in Massachusetts over time. Bibaud gathers data from the U.S. Historical Climatology Network database, which contains records of precipitation from 12 Massachusetts recording stations going back to the late 1800s. Then, using the MATLAB data analysis program, she breaks down the data, seeking to answer basic questions about Massachusetts snowfall: Are we having more or fewer snowy days than we did 100 years ago? Is each individual snow event more or less intense than these events were in the past?

“I think of us as small and mighty. We’re asking really interesting questions and adding good work to the scientific literature.”
 Kristin Burkholder, professor of environmental science and studies

Bibaud’s research builds on previous students’ thesis research, which examined rainfall trends. Both offer an important bellwether for climate change by weeding out the patterns caused by typical weather cycles such as El Niño and highlighting changes that can’t be attributed to natural causes. Burkholder, an oceanographer by training, says the research offers a new way of examining New England precipitation records while also exposing Bibaud to the “messiness” of real-world climate science. She plans to present the results from her research this December at the American Geophysical Union Annual Meeting in San Francisco and hopes their final study can possibly be published in a climate journal. For Bibaud, the SURE experience has encapsulated the close linkages among weather, climate and climate change.

“A weather anomaly could influence sea temperatures, which could impact offshore winds, change the temperature on the coast and influence snowfall,” she says. “Everything in this world is connected — there are no singular, stand-alone parts.”

Watch: Students Explore Our Natural World Through Summer Research

 

Can Oysters Clean Our Water?

Dan Rogers, assistant professor of chemistry

As our population increases along the coast—including on Massachusetts’ own Cape Cod — a hidden environmental issue is affecting our waterways. Nitrogen, a byproduct of human activities as simple as fertilizing lawns and flushing toilets, has begun to build in coastal waters, poisoning fish and ultimately contaminating our water supply. This summer, Stonehill student Dan Stone ’18 studied a natural solution to this unnatural problem: using oysters to remove the excess nitrogen from Little Pond in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Stone, a  Stonehill/Notre Dame 3+2 engineering student, is working with Dan Rogers, assistant professor of chemistry, on a project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Sea Grant. The data collection done by Stone’s team consists of measurements of sediment in three traps dispersed in the pond, two near a collection of oysters deposited in the water. Stone and Rogers take the traps to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Caroline Rosinski ’17 and Martha Hauff, assistant professor of biology, also conducted research at Woods Hole this summer, focusing on herring) to evaluate the rate of nitrogen removal. They hypothesize that oysters introduced to the environment will speed the natural removal processes, ultimately mitigating nitrogen pollution. They hope to create an actionable data model that can be used by Falmouth and other coastal towns to improve water quality. And Stone hopes to walk away with lasting insights that will inform his future engineering career path.

“Working with the SURE community, especially Professor Rogers, has been an extremely useful experience,” says Stone. “It’s great to do this research as an undergraduate and get a head start on graduate school.”

Are Dragonflies Affected by a Warming Climate?

In 1966, a researcher named Hal White began documenting the Odonata — dragonflies and damselflies — at Ponkapoag Pond on the Blue Hills Reservation about 13 miles north of campus. Little did he know that 50 years later, two students from Stonehill College would pick up where he left off with a survey in the exact same spot.

Working with Nicholas Block, assistant professor of biology, Samantha Betherman ’17 and Matthew Marshall ’17 have been observing the emergence of dragonfly species at the pond. By creating a survey strategy, counting the insects present and observing their flight periods from April through November, the students are establishing a data set to compare with White’s original observation of 81 species in the area in the 1960s. That information can then be modeled to determine correlations among events such as climate change or human development that may alter the emergence times or diversity of dragonfly species at the pond.

This is the second of three years Block plans to run the SURE project with students, to create averages that filter out any transient data aberrations. Block says the ultimate goal of the project is to publish the research in ecology or natural history journals. In the meantime, he says, the project is benefiting his biology majors in myriad ways.

“They’re learning the importance of collecting data and working as a team through difficult situations,” says Block. Betherman adds that the research in the field is sharpening her communication skills. “I often have to tell the curious public what we’re doing with our nets and binoculars — but I like telling them about our dragonflies,” she says.