VCU Rice Center

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News and events
May 23, 2013

VCU celebrates Rice Center’s Fifth Annual Research Symposium

By Sathya Achia Abraham and Frances Dumenci

From exploring the ecology of the James River, to developing a water distribution system to deliver potable water to an indigenous village in Bolivia, to understanding the behavior of migratory songbirds — the ultimate goal of the research taking place at the Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Center is to conserve the world in which we live.

Many of these research efforts were highlighted last week during the Rice Center’s Fifth Annual Research Symposium.

Each year, the symposium brings together faculty, students and researchers from cooperating universities, agencies and organizations to share the latest research in conservation ecology and the environment.

“What we promote through the VCU Rice Center is students getting hands-on experience in environmental field work,” said Leonard Smock, Ph.D., director of the Rice Center.

“The work is translational in that it aims to solve problems that have an impact on society, including such areas as water quality, wetlands restoration and conservation issues. Environmental research is becoming more and more important with greater impact on the environment. Research is critical, in particular focusing on water. Over this coming century, water, not energy, is going to be the major issue because it is not renewable,” he said.

Nearly 50 participants took part in the symposium, which included a mix of oral and poster presentations.The presentations and posters were judged by members of the Rice Center with the best of each winning an award by Sigma Xi, the scientific research society.

The best presentation was titled “Linking hydraulic properties, canopy structure and light use in shrub expansion,” given by Sheri Shiflett, a graduate student in VCU Life Sciences. The poster entitled “Using microbial communities and extracellular enzymes to link soil organic matter characteristics to greenhouse gas production in a tidal freshwater wetland,” presented by Ember Morrissey, a graduate student in VCU Life Sciences, took the best poster award.

Wetland restoration and conservation

A major initiative at the Rice Center is to restore and conserve wetlands ranging from the Chesapeake Bay to Panama and back. Leading one arm of those efforts is Edward Crawford, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, who presented his team’s efforts that examine the warbler — a songbird that likes wetlands — and its migration from the Chesapeake Bay to Panama and back.

“Wetlands are nature’s kidneys, nature’s supermarkets, nature’s birdbaths in terms of nesting and staging and nature’s speed bumps as they buffer wave energy, flood waters and protect habitats behind them,” said Crawford.

“As part of the mission here at the Rice Center, we are trying to restore wetlands in the James River watershed and also the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” he said.

According to Crawford, the Chesapeake Bay — which covers parts of six states and the District of Columbia and is home to approximately 3,600 species, including plants and animals — has been in a state of peril.

“Virginia has lost about 45 percent of its wetlands since the mid-1700s. The state of Maryland has lost over 73 percent of its wetlands. The Chesapeake Bay itself has lost over half of its wetland acreage,” said Crawford.

It has lost more than half of its riparian habitat, approximately 60 percent of the population of soft shell clams, 80 percent of the population of aquatic vegetation and 98 to 99 percent of oysters that once inhabited the bay. The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, and about one-third of all Virginians live in the James River watershed.

In the current study, Crawford and Team Warbler — which includes scientists, students, and organizations such as the National Audubon Society and the Panama Audubon Society — pulled together to conduct field research in the Panamanian wetlands and to study the mangroves that provide important habitat for the warblers.

By understanding the effect of mangrove health on the health of the warblers, the scientists are adding another puzzle piece to our understanding of the greater effects of development on the ecosystem at large.

“Mangroves support a vast array of terrestrial organisms, of estuary organisms and also marine organisms,” said Crawford.

“Last time I was in Panama, I gave a talk to members of the general public and members of the Panama Audubon Society, and one thing I told them is, ‘Do not do what we’ve done here. We’ve destroyed over half of our country’s wetlands so now we’re back peddling to try and make up for this. It’s far better to preserve the wetlands than it is to try to restore or rebuild the wetlands,’” he said.

Technology and conservation

Another presentation highlight was the work of Christopher J. Ehrhardt, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the VCU Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Ehrhardt’s laboratory is exploring how a bacteria found in the soil, such as Bacillus cereus spores, can be used to help determine the difference between natural and man-made pathogens.

Ehrhardt began working in the novel field of biosurveillence after completing his postdoctoral training at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va., in 2010. Microbial forensics is a relatively new field that essentially started in 2001 with the Amerithrax case, which was one of the longest and most expensive investigations ever for the FBI, he said.

As a direct result of this case, the Biowatch program began in 2003. The program entails monitoring stations in cities that detect pathogenic organisms. A flaw in the system was discovered in Houston in 2003 when biomonitoring detected pathogens in the air for three consecutive days. Local authorities were mobilized, but nobody was getting sick.

“We realized that pathogens are present almost everywhere in nature, but at low levels,” said Ehrhardt, who previously conducted research at the Counterterrorism and Forensic Science Research Unit of the FBI.

“Our ability to detect organisms far exceeds our ability to characterize them as a public threat. The key question is how we can distinguish natural pathogens from laboratory-made bioweapons. Hopefully more forensic signature research will allow us to distinguish between natural and man-made pathogens,” he said.

A hands-on experience: a student’s perspective

The Rice Center is also involved in heavily promoting hands-on environmental field work for students, and VCU biology student, Laura Morgan, M.S., shared her research experience with participants during the symposium.

Under the guidance of her mentor, Michael Fine, Ph.D., professor of biology in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, Morgan is studying agonistic behavior and sound production in blue catfish in the tidal freshwater James River.

First, Morgan began a year-long study on the passive acoustics of the James River, creating a catalog of sounds and a database. For this, she recorded 10 minutes per hour for 48 hours twice a month from April to June then bimonthly from July to March. Specifically, she is looking for any sounds that might give an idea about the agonistic behavior of blue catfish through its sounds.

The second part of the research examined the behavior of the blue catfish. Trials were done using indoor and outdoor containers with cameras above them to record behaviors when blue catfish are put together in a container. She has just begun to analyze the sounds of the river recordings.

“One of the coolest observations so far with passive acoustics is how quiet the James River is. When you hear recordings taken from the ocean, you hear many sounds. It is very loud. The sounds of the James River were much quieter,” said Morgan.

“The research with the blue catfish is very interesting. We have observed lots of behaviors in our trials. When in the same container, blue catfish have small and repeated fights with each other with the new fish as the aggressor. We’ve seen things that haven’t been seen in other fish behaviors,” she said.

She added that the blue catfish are an invasive species and that little is known about them.

“They can’t be raised in fisheries because they are too aggressive. I am hoping that by understanding their behavior, research can help with either learning how to raise them commercially in fisheries or eradication. No one is doing this type of research on blue catfish. It’s really complex,” said Morgan.

Christopher Ehrhardt

Christopher J. Ehrhardt, associate professor in the VCU Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, presented his research during the VCU Rice Center Research Symposium last week. Courtesy of University Relations

Laura Morgan

Laura Morgan, a graduate student in biology, is studying the agonistic behavior and sound production in the blue catfish. She presented her research during the VCU Rice Center Research Symposium last week. Courtesy of University Relations