Interns

...now browsing by category

 

How Plants (Occasionally) Escape the Food Chain

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

by Kristen Minogue

Leaf shredded by insects. Credit: Marina LaForgia


It’s a trick worthy of any spy thriller: to elude an enemy, hide among something it won’t notice. Or, to be extra safe, something it finds incredibly disgusting. It turns out the same strategy can work for plants that don’t want to get eaten. Sometimes.

For the last seven months, intern Marina LaForgia has kept tabs on tree saplings in more than a dozen different environments and watched the game of ecological survival play out. As she tracked their progress, she searched for an answer to a deceptively simple question: Is diversity good for plants? When it comes to the food chain, will hungry herbivores pass over tasty plants if they’re surrounded by less palatable ones?
Click to continue »

The Satellite That Could Save the Coasts

Friday, September 16th, 2011

by Kristen Minogue

On a hot afternoon in July, a team of researchers sailing down Chesapeake Bay stumbled across a cluster of striped bass floating in the water. About a dozen of the iridescent black and silver fish bobbed at the surface near the ship’s bow. All of them were dead.

Scientists prepare to measure how light interacts with particles in the Bay. Credit: Carlos DelCastillo

The fish kill came out of a low-oxygen zone near Annapolis, just one symptom of the Bay’s declining health. Overflows of nutrients from farms and cities have fueled massive growths of algae that cut off light and oxygen to the Bay’s lower levels.

“There was a very quiet moment between everybody on the boat,” recalled Vienna Saccomanno, one of the Smithsonian research interns aboard when it was discovered. “You kind of knew what everyone was thinking, feeling empowered to continue with this research and hopefully contribute to prevention of this in our water system.”

The scientists on board weren’t there simply to document the Bay’s many ailments, however. They had joined the 10-day cruise to pave the way for a much larger goal: a geostationary satellite that could provide constant, detailed coverage of coastal health.
Click to continue »

Marshes, Microbes and the Other Blue Carbon

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

by Kristen Minogue

Tidal marshes have long been lauded as carbon sinks for their ability to pull CO2 from the atmosphere and bury it in the soil, what scientists have taken to calling “blue carbon.” But wetlands are also notorious methane emitters. Now ecologists suspect that only a select few wetland types can reliably act as sinks, and that number may shrink as sea levels rise.

tidal wetland

The Kirkpatrick Marsh on SERC's campus in Edgewater, MD. Tidal wetlands both store and release greenhouse gases. Which will prevail as the planet warms is a question ecologists are still trying to answer. (Credit: Gary Peresta/SERC)

Scientists estimate wetlands are responsible for anywhere from 15 to 45 percent of all methane emissions – a wide range that makes predicting their role in climate change difficult. However, that role could prove critical in the years to come. Methane (CH4) is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Over the course of a century, a single gram of methane is roughly 25 times more powerful than a gram of CO2.
Click to continue »

Intern Logs: A Soldier and a Scientist

Friday, August 19th, 2011

This summer the SERC interns had a unique addition to their ranks – Iraq veteran Kiel Edson, a former Marine finishing his last year of undergrad at California State University, Sacramento. In this edited Q&A, the 28-year-old shares thoughts on Iraq, SERC and the transition from soldier to researcher.

Edson1

After five years working as a Russian linguist for the Marines, 28-year-old Kiel Edson started college and discovered his passion for conservation biology. (Credit: Michael Tobias.)

What kind of work did you do for the Marines in Iraq?

E: I was part of a group of what’s called Signal Support Team. We basically go out onto missions off the base, closer to the main cities, and we collect intelligence on what’s happening within the city. And then anything relevant that we find, we basically just write-up in situation reports or intelligence reports and send them off to the commanders who are making decisions as to how to handle the situations in that city. We just tell them, hey, they know that you’re going to ambush, or they know about the convoy going through on Thursday, so that they can change the way that they operate to avoid taking casualties, or they know going in there’s going to be a firefight, so everybody’s prepared for it. It’s not a surprise.
Click to continue »

Hunt for a Missing Nutrient

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

by Kristen Minogue

Leviton

Intern Ginny Leviton (left) and Vienna Saccomanno sample groundwater from a drainage ditch, trying to pin down the exact spot where the nitrogen goes missing. (Credit: Tom Jordan)

The Choptank watershed has SERC researchers baffled. On the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, roughly a 75-minute drive from SERC, the groundwater flowing into the Choptank River passes through a cornfield – a likely source of nitrogen, a nutrient that can wreak havoc on the Bay’s ecosystem if it runs too high. But something is happening to the nitrogen here before it reaches the Bay. Nutrient ecologist Tom Jordan and his research team have spent the better part of a year trying to figure out what.
Click to continue »

Intern Logs: Witness to an Invasion

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

snakehead students

Students on the SERC sampling team, with the 23-inch female snakehead fish they helped ensnare: Diana Sisson (intern), Alison Everett (visiting student), and Philip Choy (intern).

First-hand accounts of the snakehead capture from two interns on the seining survey.

It was around 3 p.m., and it was time to pull the last seine net of the day. We had been out on the water since 10 a.m., and we had already caught a few rarer species, including a stingray and a few juvenile Common Carp. Research biologists Eric Bah and Stacey Havard volunteered to pull what may be the seine of their career.
Click to continue »

Snakehead Invaders Spread to the Rhode

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

snakehead

The Northern Snakehead recently crossed into the Rhode River, marking its first appearance in this part of the Bay. Previously scientists thought the Bay's high salinity would hold them in the Potomac, but influxes of freshwater may have smoothed their way.

On the afternoon of Thursday, July 14th, a team of researchers and interns in SERC’s marine invasions lab went out on a routine seining survey in the Rhode River and returned with a troubling catch: a Northern Snakehead fish.

The Northern Snakehead (Channa argus) is a top-level predator that can consume fish and animals up to a third of its body size. It also has the ability to breathe out of water for up to four days if kept moist, using air chambers above its gills that can act as a primitive lung. (But reports of it walking on land are myths. They can at best wriggle short distances, and only juvenile fish have that ability.) More disturbing, at least to ecologists, is their ability to seriously disrupt the food chain wherever they establish themselves.

Native to China, the Northern Snakehead first appeared in Maryland in 2002, in a Crofton pond about 20 miles east of D.C. Regulators moved quickly to eradicate them, but two years later, they established themselves in the Potomac River. Since snakeheads thrive in freshwater (they typically cannot tolerate salinities higher than 15 parts per thousand), it was thought they would be unable to expand beyond the Potomac. But ecologists suspect an influx of freshwater into Chesapeake Bay could have paved the way for them to leave the Potomac and invade other tributaries, such as the Rhode River.

Important note: It is illegal to own or move a Northern Snakehead in the state of Maryland. If you do catch one, the Department of Natural Resources requests that you promptly dispatch it (freezing recommended) and contact the Maryland or Virginia DNR. Though some also suggest cooking it for dinner.

-by Kristen Minogue

See also: Narratives from two interns on the sampling team

Slipper Limpets and Stress, A Tale of Two Interns

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

By Florian von Bechtolsheim and Anne Phillip, 2010 Summer Interns

“Anybody got some heavy-duty, double-zipper, sandwich-size Ziploc bags?” We had many such questions for everyone at SERC. We were known this summer as two students, looking for random stuff and entrenching ourselves in the wet lab. There was a reason for that.
Click to continue »

Day at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian Marsh

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Four people sitting on a boardwalk in a marsh, measuring plants.

Seal collects data with other interns for Smithsonian scientists who are investigating the impact of global change on tidal marshes.

I know the title sounds like another great Ben Stiller Night at the Museum movie. However, in this real story of life at the Smithsonian, you will get a first-hand look at what really goes on behind the scenes at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Although the movies show the Smithsonian as talking exhibits, in reality the Smithsonian is a multitude of museums and scientific research centers where students of all ages and specialties do research. The two movies did a very good job of characterizing some of the more popular characters in history such as Theodore Roosevelt, but in reality the most interesting people at the Smithsonian are the researchers.
Click to continue »

Hypoxic waters: Researching beyond the surface to understand the impact on fisheries

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Two summer interns in a boat measuring the water's dissolved oxygen.

Two summer interns measure the water's dissolved oxygen concentrations. Water is typically considered hypoxic if oxygen concentrations are below 2mg/L. Photo: Courtney Richmond

Habitat destruction comes in many forms. The obvious include the clear-cutting of forests and the removal of mountaintops. Then there is the damage that’s less visible, like hypoxia.

In coastal waters around the world there are more than 500 hypoxic zones. These are areas where dissolved oxygen concentrations are so low that they threaten fish, invertebrates and aquatic food webs. Some fish manage to escape hypoxic areas, but oysters, clams and other sessile creatures are simply stuck.

Hypoxia makes the evening news when there’s a noticeable fish kill. However many of its effects are more subtle. Individuals that fail to escape low oxygen zones can suffer mortality or reduced growth and reproduction. Creatures that flee can become easy targets for fishermen and predators.
Click to continue »