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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.
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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.
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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.


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.
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Hunt for a Missing Nutrient

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

by Kristen Minogue


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.
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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.
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Snakehead Invaders Spread to the Rhode

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011


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.
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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.
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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.
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Intern Logs: Methanogenesis and nail polish

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Q&A with David Gonzalez, 2009 Summer Intern
Major: Evolution, Ecology and Biodiversity
School: University of California-Davis, Class of 2011

Intern David Gonzalez poses with some of his <i>Phragmites australis</i> plants

Intern David Gonzalez poses with some of his Phragmites australis plants

What drew you to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center?
The big-picture research that the scientists do here interested me, particularly the experiments relating to global climate change. Among other things, scientists of my generation are going to have to understand how climate change will impact organisms. We talk about it a lot in my classes, so it was cool to have the opportunity to have hands-on experience exploring some of these issues as an undergrad.

You were here for ten weeks. What was your research project about?

I worked on a global change project that examined the relationship between microbes in the soil and Common Reed, or Phragmites australis. Through a process called methanogenesis, the microbes produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, which the plants help to emit into the atmosphere. Because Phragmites australis is found in wetlands worldwide, it’s important to look at how its methanogenesis rates might be affected by global change. Basically we wanted to see if rising CO2 and nitrogen levels exacerbate the problem of methane emissions. So I spent the summer growing Phragmites australis under conditions of elevated CO2 and nitrogen and then measured the response of the microbes and plants.

Do you feel like you spent your summer being an active scientist?
Half of the summer I felt like a scientist; the other half I felt like a gardener. There were a lot of day-to-day chores like watering the plants, counting them, giving them fertilizer, and weeding them. I had to make sure these plants grew to the best of their ability in the short time we had to grow them.

So you learned about the challenges and realities of doing science?

A lot of things I learned this summer relate to how many little things go into doing scientific research – from going out and buying fuses for a machine when it broke down, to purchasing nail polish at a drug store so we could take a peel from a leaf to count stomatal density.

What exactly did you do with nail polish?
We used it in some pilot studies. You apply nail polish to the leaf, let it dry, put scotch tape on it, and then pull it off. This creates a kind of caste of the leaf that you can put on a microscope slide so you can examine a leaf’s cellular structure. For instance, we can go through and count the guard cells, which lets us figure stomatal density and helps us understand how the leaf is responding to the treatments we applied.

You were in the biogeochemistry lab. Did you interact much with the other labs at SERC?
Yeah, one of the great things about SERC is that you’re surrounded by scientists with all these different areas of expertise. I got a lot of help from the forest ecology lab; they let me use some of their instruments for measuring leaf area. But we also got to go on lab exchanges. I spent a day on the water with the “Crab Lab;” I helped them catch and tag blue crabs. And then I also spent a number of evenings setting up mouse traps in the forest with a friend who was interning in the Terrestrial Ecology Lab. In general, we were encouraged to find out what the other labs were up to, which I often did just by talking with the other interns.

What are the dorms like?
The Green Village is awesome. It has a kitchen, a common area and feels like a nice cozy dorm.

How much independence did you have?
Usually you put in eight hours of work a day; occasionally you work more. After that though, you’re free. We cooked dinners together in the evenings. Some of the interns had a garden with a behemoth of a basil plant – that made for a great pesto party. And then we spent weekends exploring the East Coast. I saw fireworks in Washington, DC, on the Fourth of July; camped in Shenandoah National Park; and swam in the Atlantic Ocean.

SERC's summer interns on a day-trip to the Shenandoah Valley

SERC's summer interns on a day-trip to the Shenandoah Valley

Was it difficult to get around?

A lot of the interns had cars. That was something I was worried about in the beginning, but everybody turned out to be really friendly. If you needed groceries, there were always people going to the grocery store. If you wanted to visit Washington, DC, it was easy to round up people to hit the Smithsonian Museums. The weekend excursions were great.

You’ll graduate in 2011. How do you want to use the knowledge you’ve gained here at SERC?
I’m definitely planning on doing more scientific research – maybe related to climate change, maybe not. Something that I’m very interested in is communicating the importance of environmental science to the general public and to policy makers. I want to be able to convey why it’s important to think about things like climate change, where your food comes from, farming practices, carbon emissions and things like that. That’s sort of my long-term interest – which I hope will go hand-in-hand with my future studies and research experiences.

Visit our web site for more information on internships and fellowships at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.