Our congratulations to Bonnie McGill, KBS LTER graduate student, who was recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship. We’ve asked Bonnie to write a blog post about her research. Enjoy!
The earth and our society face such “gi-normous” problems like climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, food security—what can a little person like me do about it?
This question has been rolling around inside my head for the last 11 years or so, and it seems like my quest is starting to gain more traction. I’ve narrowed my research focus to water quality, agriculture, and climate change, which is why I’m so excited to be a new Ph.D. student in Dr. Stephen K. Hamilton’s aquatic biogeochemistry and ecosystem ecology lab at the Kellogg Biological Station (KBS). Not only am I working with a scientist at the forefront of current research in these topics, but I am also a part of a collaborative community with large-scale, long-term experiments like we have at the KBS Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) program. This is important to me because I believe the best (or only?) way to address these “gi-normous” issues is to remember: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together” (African proverb). Further helping me on my quest, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded me a graduate research fellowship, which provides me with a monthly stipend and covers my tuition and health insurance costs for the next three years. This will allow me to focus all of my time and energy on research. I am grateful to the NSF and to you, the taxpayer, who funds the NSF. So let me tell you how I’m going to put that money to good use.
My research is focused on protecting water quality in agricultural landscapes, which often means keeping nitrogen (as well as phosphorus) from fertilizer and manure out of streams and groundwater. Maintaining perennial and wooded plant communities along streams is one of several management tools for removing nitrogen from rainwater runoff before it reaches a stream. I’m interested in how these plant communities along streams (called “riparian buffers”) can work most effectively. To do this, I will investigate how plant and soil microbial diversity influence the way nitrogen moves and changes form in riparian buffers in agricultural landscapes. Although the plants are important in riparian buffers, the real star of the show is the microbes (bacteria and fungi) that live in the soil. Even though they are invisible to the naked eye, they are responsible for changing the form of nitrogen to be more useable by plants; that means more nitrogen in plants, and less nitrogen polluting the water. They also help permanently remove nitrogen from soils and water by turning it into gases that escape into the atmosphere. But does a more diverse community of plants in the riparian buffer increase its nitrogen-removal effectiveness? In other words, does having more plant diversity in the riparian buffers help keep stream water clean? In order to tackle this question, I developed an experiment that will allow me to:
- learn more about how the diversity of riparian plant communities affects the fate and form of nitrogen as it moves through the riparian buffer;
- look at how many different types and what types of microbes are present in the soil associated with the stream-side plant communities;
- figure out how the interaction between plant and soil microbial communities affects nitrogen processing.
Furthermore, the experiment is designed to see how these patterns may change across space (between different crops, management practices, soil types, etc.) and time (principally between seasons and years). So if at KBS you see large, clear acrylic sheets sectioning off chunks of riparian wetlands with funny looking tubes coming out of them, those are mine!
I look forward to posting here again in the future to give you an update on my research. But don’t expect me to solve any gi-normous issues anytime soon, I’m just taking it one experiment at a time. As every graduate student can vouch for me when I say, just when you think you’ve found a very interesting pebble to focus on, you turn over the pebble and there is an entire universe of further questions and possibilities.