VCU Rice Center

Photo of moth on flowering plant
News and events
May 8, 2015

Grad student Morina receives Sea Grant research fellowship

In a very competitive field, VCU researcher Joseph Morina has received one of only eight prestigious grants for 2015-2018 from the Virginia Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellowships. Working in the lab of Dr. Rima Franklin, Morina will use the award to study microbial nitrogen cycling at the VCU Rice Rivers Center and other tidal wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The award covers tuition, stipend, and research and travel expenses for two years.

Additionally, Mr. Morina was awarded a Rice Rivers Center Scholarship as an undergraduate and will be receiving an additional one this year for his Master’s work. VCU congratulates Mr. Morina on his hard work and excellent results thus far.

Joseph Morina

May 6, 2015

Virginia oyster shell recycling program expands to Charlottesville

Powered by volunteers, the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program has been making great strides in expanding shell recycling efforts in the state. Charlottesville’s CBS 19 reported in April:

April 28, 2015

Accomplished student researcher wins prestigious grant

Alice Besterman

Alice Besterman thought she would be an anthropologist, but she was wrong. Her curiosity simply took a different turn.

Early in her studies at VCU, she transitioned to pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Science and quickly became immersed in ecological research. She participated as a student in the Panama Avian Field Ecology class in 2011, and from that experience became deeply interested in field ecology and avian research. Under the guidance of Dr. Lesley Bulluck, she conducted an Independent Study, the goal of which was to examine how caterpillar prey resources might affect Prothonotary Warbler reproductive success. Simultaneously, Besterman developed an interest in wetland ecosystems (thanks in part to taking Wetland Ecology) and pursued opportunities in wetlands research, including interning as a hydrologic technician for the U.S. Geological Survey.

After graduating from VCU, she enrolled at the University of Virginia, and is currently a first-year Ph.D. student, working in Dr. Michael Pace’s lab, seeking ways to integrate her interests in birds, wetlands, and ecosystem processes. Following up on previous graduate students’ work, she currently is interested in addressing the effects to mudflat ecosystems caused by an invasive seaweed, Gracilaria vermiculophylla. This invader proliferates on tidal flats throughout the barrier island/lagoon system along the eastern shore of Virginia. Previous work has found that this macroalga is associated with increased numbers of benthic invertebrates, as well as higher concentrations of pathogenic strains of Vibrio bacteria. Vibrio can become concentrated in the meat of filter-feeding molluscs, and so can pose a health risk to shellfish consumers. For her dissertation she is interested in investigating how the changes to the spatial dynamics of benthic invertebrates caused by this alga may lead to upward cascading effects for shorebird feeding, possibly resulting in changes to Vibrio abundance and distribution.

Recently, Besterman was awarded a fellowship from The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (often abbreviated NSF GRFP). This program awards students early in their graduate careers with stipend and educational funds. Submissions must include a research proposal and also a personal statement describing the applicant’s interest in science, background, and future goals. Around 2,000 awards are given out each year across all fields of science. The fellowship provides $34,000 per year of stipend money given directly to the fellow, and $12,000 per year of educational costs for three years. Fellows also qualify to apply for NSF grants that foster professional development and research opportunities, such as internships with federal agencies and international collaborations.

VCU Life Sciences, the VCU Center for Environmental Studies and the VCU Rice Rivers Center all congratulate Ms. Besterman on her accomplishments and look forward to seeing the results of her ongoing research.

Mar. 4, 2015

1=2 during matching grant: VCU Rice Rivers Research Building Campaign receives a match

VCU Rice Rivers Research Building

The VCU Rice Rivers Center is delighted to announce that The Cabell Foundation has made a one year, one million dollar matching grant toward the campaign to fund our state-of-the-science research building. At 14,000 square feet, this critically-needed laboratory space will provide the capability for VCU Rice Rivers Center researchers to make great strides in building on a growing international reputation as an authority on large rivers, riparian landscapes and the life that depends on them.

Several key components of this research building will support and drive research growth at the Center. These include:

  • Environmental Chemistry Analysis Laboratory: Already generously funded by MeadWestvaco Foundation, this space will serve as a cost-centered resource providing analytical support to researchers at the Center, at the university and also at other institutions and agencies. The lab will contain capabilities for the analysis of stable isotopes, nutrients, metals and a wide range of other environmental pollutants.
  • Geospatial Data Analysis Laboratory: This lab will support research on and the application of spatial data analysis to complex environmental issues. Capabilities will include geographical information system and global positioning systems.
  • Information Technology Systems: These will link to an integrated river sensor network that will employ a variety of cutting–edge equipment, such as real-time water quality instrumentation nodes and remote sensing instrumentation, providing the foundation for innovative research programs encompassing the James River watershed.

VCU is extremely grateful for the generosity of The Cabell Foundation, and we are looking forward to seeing the mission and vision of the Center fulfilled as a result of this important facility. Throughout 2015, any gift made to support the Rice Rivers Research Fund will be matched 100%. This is a unique opportunity for you to make a difference. Thank you for your consideration of a gift.

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Mar. 4, 2015

“The Spawn” wins first runner up at 2015 RVA Environmental Film Festival

VCU alumna Melissa Lesh has filmed yet another beautiful, award-winning documentary. Produced by VCU Life Sciences’ Outreach Education Coordinator Anne Wright for the Science in the Park website, and narrated by former James River Park Manager Ralph White, the film documents the plight and management of blueback herring and American shad in the James River. The film features interviews with Michael Odom, Hatchery Manager of the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery, and Alan Weaver, Fish Passage Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The VCU Rice Rivers Center would like to thank our partners at Harrison Lake and VDGIF for their contributions to this film. We also congratulate Ms. Lesh and Ms. Wright, on this well-deserved recognition.

Click here to view the film:

The Spawn from Friends of James River Park on Vimeo.

Mar. 4, 2015

VCU Rice Rivers Center welcomes Ph.D. student from Chile

Sonia Tenorio, Ph.D. student in Oceanography, has arrived to work with Dr. David Elliott through the end of February in the laboratory of Dr. Paul Bukaveckas. Their work will concentrate on zooplankton ecology with the goal of using population dynamics modeling to develop estimates of non-predatory mortality from her data on abundances and live dead composition of copepods from Mejillones (23ºS), Northern Chile.

Ms. Tenorio received her Masters in Aquatic System Ecology from the University of Antofagasta, Chile, and her Bachelors in Marine Biology from the University of Concepción, Chile.

Tenorio welcome

Mar. 4, 2015

Paul Bukaveckas, Ph.D. featured speaker at regional meeting

The Virginia Water Environment Association hosted Dr. Paul Bukaveckas at their February meeting as the featured speaker; he provided an update on the recent findings of the ongoing James River Chlorophyll-a Study. Dr. Bukaveckas chairs the Science Advisory Panel on this study, which has been tasked by DEQ to determine defensible criteria for chlorophyll-a that will protect water quality and prevent harmful algal blooms. The outcome of this study may have a significant impact on WWTPs and MS4s in the James River basin, as it will shed light on the appropriateness of the nutrient load allocation for the James River Basin.

Paul Bukaveckas VWEA lunch and learn

Mar. 4, 2015

The gravity of pollination: integrating at-site features into spatial analysis of contemporary pollen movement
A VCU Rice Rivers Center publication

The VCU Rice Rivers Center congratulates Dr. Rodney Dyer and Dr. Angela Redwine on their publication, “The gravity of pollination: integrating at-site features into spatial analysis of contemporary pollen movement”, published in Molecular Ecology (2014).

The abstract reads as follows:

Pollen-mediated gene flow is a major driver of spatial genetic structure in plant populations. Both individual plant characteristics and site-specific features of the landscape can modify the perceived attractiveness of plants to their pollinators and thus play an important role in shaping spatial genetic variation. Most studies of landscape-level genetic connectivity in plants have focused on the effects of interindividual distance using spatial and increasingly ecological separation, yet have not incorporated individual plant characteristics or other at-site ecological variables. Using spatially explicit simulations, we first tested the extent to which the inclusion of at-site variables influencing local pollination success improved the statistical characterization of genetic connectivity based upon examination of pollen pool genetic structure. The addition of at-site characteristics provided better models than those that only considered interindividual spatial distance (e.g. IBD). Models parameterized using conditional genetic covariance (e.g. population graphs) also outperformed those assuming panmixia. In a natural population of Cornus florida L. (Cornaceae), we showed that the addition of at-site characteristics (clumping of primary canopy opening above each maternal tree and maternal tree floral output) provided significantly better models describing gene flow than models including only between-site spatial (IBD) and ecological (isolation by resistance) variables. Overall, our results show that including interindividual and local ecological variation greatly aids in characterizing landscape-level measures of contemporary gene flow.

Dileo, M. F., Siu, J. C., Rhodes, M.K., Lopez-Villalobos, A., Redwine, A., Ksiazek, K. & Dyer, R.J. (2014) The gravity of pollination: integrating at-site features into spatial analysis of contemporary pollen movement. Molecular Ecology, 23(16), 3973-3982.

The Gravity of Pollination

Mar. 4, 2015

The effect of urbanization on egg parasitism levels in the fall cankerworm

By Derek M. Johnson, Assistant Professor, Biology, VCU and Abby Nelson, Master’s Student, Biology, VCU

Insect outbreaks are the primary cause of large-scale natural disturbance in North American forests. Defoliation by insects has been shown to decrease tree growth, increase tree mortality, and have significant effects on forest ecosystem processes. Global changes due to human activities have been proposed to result in more frequent insect outbreaks. The fall cankerworm (Alsophila pometaria) has recently increased in the frequency and scale of outbreaks in eastern Virginia. The recent increase in fall cankerworm outbreaks in eastern Virginia from 2012-14, and the 10-20 years of damage this moth has done to trees in Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina, begs the question of whether urbanization plays a role in these outbreaks.


Anyone who has spent time under Richmond’s urban and suburban trees in the spring of the last three years has encountered high densities of inchworms, the larval stage of fall cankerworms, on their cars, homes, clothing, and just about anywhere else imaginable. The fall cankerworm feeds on a broad range of deciduous tree species and has one generation per year. The adults emerge from the ground in late fall or winter to mate. Females are flightless, thus must climb the trunks of trees in order to oviposit their eggs in the forest canopy. The eggs overwinter and hatch in the spring. A suite of parasitic wasp species attack fall cankerworm eggs and may play an important role in suppressing populations below outbreak levels. Parasitoids have been shown to be particularly susceptible to pollutants, and forest fragmentation may restrict the movement of these tiny wasps; thus, we hypothesize that urban effects reduce either the abundance or species richness of fall cankerworm parasitoids, and this indirectly causes longer, more frequent, and more severe outbreaks in urban areas compared to rural areas around Richmond.

In particular, we are studying the effects of human population density and forest fragmentation on the population dynamics of fall cankerworms and their parasitoids. We have banded trees in 15 sites (including the VCU Rice Rivers Center) in and around Richmond with a sticky substance called Tanglefoot® to trap and count females as they try to climb the trunk. The sites represent a range of human population densities and levels of forest cover. This study will provide important information towards understanding why fall cankerworms are becoming more of a forest pest in recent years. More broadly, this study will provide information on how urbanization may affect pest population dynamics in a rapidly changing world.

Mar. 4, 2015

Childhood dream comes true with help of VCU

Jenna Dodson has known she wanted to be in the Peace Corps since fifth grade, when she came to understand the need for help in places not as affluent, specifically Africa. Following high school, and having received the Provost Scholarship from VCU, she settled into an environmental studies major during her freshman year. According to Dodson, “It ended up being the perfect choice, as I continued to learn about the growing problems of today’s world, both environmental and economic, and the incredible gap between first and third world countries.”

Dodson smiling

Dodson has taken advantage of the many opportunities presented to her at VCU, including the ISEP Exchange program, and in the spring of 2012 studied abroad at Massey University in New Zealand. Upon returning from New Zealand, she began working at the Campus Learning Center as a biology/chemistry tutor, continuing to develop her teaching skills. The next summer, she was awarded an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) Summer Fellowship and began exploring her interest in research by working on the Prothonotary warbler project, an ongoing, international research initiative based at the VCU Rice Rivers Center.

This led to Dodson’s pursuit of a Master of Science in Environmental Studies through the accelerated program where her thesis research under Dr. Lesley Bulluck addresses foraging and breeding ecology of Prothonotary Warblers. She was given the opportunity to participate in the Panama Avian Field Ecology course two years in a row, the first year (2013-2014) as a student, and the following year (2014-2015) as a teaching assistant. In the first semester of this year, Dodson was a teaching assistant for Earth Systems Science, and this semester is a teaching assistant for Panama Avian Field Ecology and Oceanography. In addition to her assistantships, Dodson transitioned from tutoring undergraduates to improving literacy in a second grade elementary school classroom through VCU AmeriCorps. Dr. Bulluck adds what Dodson does not volunteer, “As an undergraduate, Jenna also was a music minor and captain of the VCU women’s crew team…all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA.”

Dodson paddling

Dodson notes, “All of these opportunities VCU provided along the way have allowed me to further my education, further develop my teaching and leadership skills with a wide student demographic, and solidify my passion for communicating science, creating a perfect foundation for an Environment Sector Peace Corps volunteer.”

Beginning in September of this year, Dodson will be an Agroforestry Extension Agent in Senegal, West Africa for a 2 year, 3 month term of service. Her main role will be to increase food security by focusing on the establishment of multi-purpose tree species, fruit tree propagation and orchard management. She will be organizing formal trainings, one-on-one instruction, and demonstrations that assist local farmers to acquire the technical skills they need to establish their own tree nurseries and out-plant the seedlings produced.

VCU congratulates Ms. Dodson on her hard work and achievements, and we wish her well in her new role.

Mar. 4, 2015

Turtle population study aims to prevent population collapse

The global market for turtles has been increasing since the overharvest and collapse of Asian turtle populations, and snapping turtles are being harvested worldwide in unprecedented numbers to meet increasing international demand for turtle meat. Benjamin Colteaux is an Integrative Life Sciences Ph.D. candidate in Derek Johnson’s population ecology lab; his research focuses on assessing the sustainability of snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) under a range of historic and predicted commercial harvest pressures. Colteaux’s work examines snapping turtle populations in three Virginia waterways, each of which has experienced a different level of historic harvest pressure. By combining the data collected via mark/recapture, toxicology, radio telemetry and state and federal harvest/export records, Colteaux hopes to create a clearer understanding of the current state of snapping turtle populations in the U.S. The data collected from this study will allow for the assessment of current harvest regulations and highlight the potential benefit that adding new regulations, such as size limits, could have in snapping turtle management.

For more information on Colteaux’s work: »

For more information on the Johnson lab: »

Snapping turtle

Feb. 27, 2015

Rice Rivers Center lands artist-in-residence

Beginning next September, the VCU Rice Rivers Center will have its very own artist-in-residence: VCU Arts professor, Laura Chessin. During her residence, she will complete a range of writing, photography and film projects. These will include a documentary film to assist in the public outreach and educational mission of the Center, as well as a personal body of work to continue her exploration of the intersection of arts and design to engage audiences in a dialogue about how humans relate to the natural world. Ms. Chessin has been engaged with the Rice Rivers Center for some time now; one successful collaboration has been with Dan McGarvey, Ph.D. on their science and communications course, eESP 2.0, now in its second year. Another dynamic project has been her engaging work in Panama with instructors Cathy Viverette and Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D. “I’m grateful and excited by this opportunity to help expand the possibilities for the Rice Rivers Center to be a research center, as well as a place for creative interactions to gain a deeper understanding of, as Dr. Smock writes, ‘the beauty, fragility, and innate complexity of our natural world’.”

Laura Chessin

Feb. 18, 2015

Rice Rivers Center researcher featured in Yale University publication

Rice Rivers Center researcher Matt Balazik has been featured in Yale University’s Environment 360 publication, produced by the university’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The report, titled “Atlantic Sturgeon: An Ancient Fish Struggles Against the Flow” highlights Balazik’s groundbreaking work with sturgeon in the James River.

To read the full article, please visit Yale’s Environment 360 website.

Atlantic sturgeon
Photo credit: Matt Balazik/VCU Rice Rivers Center