What’s the first image that pops into your mind at the words “scientific research?” If you’re like most people, you just envisioned a lab, a white coat, and plenty of test tubes with mysterious bubbling liquid. An undergraduate student from UNC’s Institute for the Environment (IE) Morehead City Field Site, however, would probably respond with descriptions of coastal marshes, rugged field equipment, and enough mud to destroy an entire roomful of white lab coats. As the IE students learn, scientific research often defies expectations and crosses boundaries in exciting ways.
Every fall, a group of about twenty IE undergrads moves from Chapel Hill to the Southern Outer Banks to study at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS), located in Morehead City. Although s/he may be living at the beach, an IE student’s life at IMS is anything but a vacation. Students enroll in three courses, an independent research project, and a capstone seminar, all of which keep them busy in the classroom, lab, and field. During fall 2014, I served as a Graduate Research Consultant for the capstone course, a position that gave me the opportunity to get to know an outstanding group of undergrads. I was consistently impressed by the students’ dedication and enthusiasm, and found the group’s strong comradery particularly striking given that the students were strangers upon moving to Morehead City.
The 2014 IE Capstone Seminar (ENEC 698) was taught by my advisor, Dr. Michael Piehler, and focused on ecosystem services provided by oyster reefs. Since my research on nitrogen cycling in oyster reefs dovetails nicely with this topic, I was asked to serve as the GRC. The students were tasked with responding to a report issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Research Competitiveness Program, commissioned by the UNC General Administration. One of the recommendations in this report was for UNC to “commission studies on the economic valuation of coastal ecosystem services and natural capital.” Oyster reefs were the resource in question for the capstone, and over the course of the semester, students worked in small groups to quantify ecosystem services provided by these habitats. Ecosystem services refer to processes that are naturally facilitated by habitats and considered relevant to human interests. The physical presence of oyster reefs, for example, helps reduce wave energy, which could limit erosion and loss of coastal property. Ecosystem services are typically represented with dollar values, and the challenge for the IE students was to assess a range of services and convert the data into meaningful economic units.
The students chose to survey oyster reefs that were both closed and open to shellfishing. Working in small groups, they measured physical parameters of the reefs and analyzed water filtration, nitrogen cycling, and habitat provision. One group also measured fecal indicator bacteria in the reefs, which is typically used to guide safe shellfish harvesting. Students planned and executed the lab and field work, giving them ownership over their research that usually isn’t available until graduate school. Meanwhile, I learned to better facilitate group-based research, sometimes through trial and error: always double-check for all field equipment before leaving the dock! The Morehead City IE students also had the opportunity to meet with IE students from the Outer Banks Field Site, located at UNC’s Coastal Studies Institute in Manteo, who were studying oyster aquaculture. During their weekend retreat, the students compared their research methods and results, and brainstormed ways to combine their data in the future.
By the time the students shared their findings with a packed seminar room at the capstone final presentation, they were knowledgeable and articulate about many aspects of oyster reef ecology. After presenting their research, which indicated that the oyster reefs studied were valued between $22 and $32 per square meter, the students deftly answered challenging questions from the audience. They also compiled a written report that will help local coastal managers prioritize oyster reef restoration initiatives. As a grad student, research is my full-time job, and helping the IE students become researchers too gave my own work renewed clarity and meaning. Like anything else, scientific research includes ups and downs, but the IE semester helped both the undergrads and me understand research in ways that go far, far beyond expectations.