Thursday, October 23, 2014

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Grad Students Lead Del. Toscano on Tour of Environmental Science Research

State Del. David Toscano, D-57th, minority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates and a Charlottesville-Albemarle representative, visited the University of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Sciences Wednesday to learn about the research being conducted by graduate students related to Virginia’s coast, nitrogen pollution and climate – to name a few topics.

The visit was part of the American Institute of Biological Science’s annual Congressional Visit Day, which provides an opportunity for researchers and scientists to meet with their representatives to showcase the importance of biological research and education.  

During Toscano’s visit, four groups of U.Va. graduate students presented highlights from their Virginia-based work and connected their research and findings with relevant policy issues in the commonwealth.

“It is very uplifting to see so many people engaged in cutting-edge research to help Virginia and this country,” Toscano said. “It makes me feel great that I represent this area, and I hope that we continue to support science research and funding for the University.”

Third-year graduate student Jessica Gephart, who organized the event, led Toscano through Clark Hall. Along the way, other graduate students stood ready to present their work.

“We wanted to provide Delegate Toscano with concrete examples of ongoing research at U.Va. that has important implications for the state of Virginia,” she said. “Our event was student-initiated and student-run, from all the presentations to the ending reception put on by our graduate student association.”

David Smith, chair of the department, offered high praise for the students. “I think it’s great when students take the initiative to bring people in from politics or outside media, because that spreads literacy about what’s going on in the environment,” he said. “We were happy to welcome Delegate Toscano to take at look at all the great work our students are doing.”

Highlights from Toscano’s visit included work from the Virginia Coast Reserve, a nitrogen footprint project, the Blandy Experimental Farm and a meteorology team.

Virginia Coast Reserve: Studying Shoreline Ecosystems

The Virginia Coast Reserve project is working to understand the response of coastal barrier systems to long-term changes in climate, sea level and land use, and to relate these to the ecological services the coastal barrier systems provide. Supported by the National Science Foundation, the project also provides educational opportunities for teacher certifications and for high school students.

On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, sea grass restoration efforts in the past 12 years have led to restored habitats, improved water quality and fostered the return of the bay scallop and some fish species to the area. Scientists estimate that sea grass covers less than 2 percent of the ocean floor, but it provides 20 percent of carbon burial, or long-term capture of carbon dioxide, needed to support sea ecosystems.

Shoreline protection has also increased clam and oyster harvests, has helped support more than 300 jobs in the aquaculture industry and has generated more than $35 million in revenue.

Nitrogen Footprint

Alley Leach, a master’s candidate in geosciences, studies the impact of human consumption on nitrogen pollution. While nitrogen fertilizer benefits food production, most of it is lost to the environment before consumption, which can lead to environmental issues such as acid rain, smog, habitat loss and climate change.

To inform the public about the effects of excess nitrogen in the environment, Leach and her adviser, Jim Galloway, have developed the first-ever nitrogen footprint model. Similar to the carbon footprint, the N-calculator measures the amount of nitrogen pollution that both individuals and entities like U.Va. contribute to the environment. The project is currently measuring the nitrogen impact of an organic farm in comparison to conventional faming.  

“Our project is about education and outreach,” Leach said. “We want to inform people on why nitrogen is important, why they should care, and what they can do to reduce their footprint. We’re trying to establish a nitrogen footprint target for U.Va., and we want to take it to other places in Virginia as well.”

Blandy Experimental Farm: Population and Community Ecology

Research at Blandy Experimental Farm, which also serves as Virginia’s state arboretum, covers an abundance of topics. Located in the Shenandoah Valley, the farm has served as the site of several recent research projects: exploring patterns of population dynamics among gypsy moths, an invasive forest pest to Virginia; the effects of parasitism and resource availability on bumblebees, nature’s most important pollinators; carbon dioxide emissions in aged-land ecosystems; and the diets of small herbivores.

Blandy supports research for undergraduates through its National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates and hosts graduate students from U.Va., Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University. In addition to its research mission, Blandy hosts year-round educational programs for K-12 students and adults.

Boundary Layer Meteorology

U.Va. environmental science students have collaborated with students in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to build “hexa-copters” that assist in gathering data on wind flows over difficult terrain. These devices will aid the de Wekker lab group, headed by associate professor of environmental sciences Stephan de Wekker, in modeling the wind-borne dispersion of particles from mining and milling operations.

In conjunction with tethered balloons and standing weather towers, the hexa-copters will use anemometers and other meteorological instruments to study boundary-layer meteorological processes over the hilly terrain of Southwest Virginia.

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