University of Vermont

Center for Cultural Pluralism

UVM Launches New Summer Research Program for Students

National Science Foundation sponsors study of Lake Champlain

students in boat
UVM was awarded a $310,000 grant to launch an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program for the next three years. This summer, 10 students, like these plying the waters of Missisquoi Bay, will run their own research projects measuring the health of Lake Champlain and surrounding communities. (Photo courtesy of Jason Stockwell)

Ten undergraduates from across the United States will probe the waters of Lake Champlain this summer, seeking a clearer picture of how people are impacting the lake’s ecosystem — and how the regional economy is affected by the health of the lake.

“We have problems with harmful algal blooms and nutrient loading into the lake which many people are aware of,” says Jason Stockwell, director of UVM’s Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory and the lead investigator of the new summer program. But less well understood is how the lake and human communities form a whole system, he says.

“For example, we know that excess nutrients, like fertilizer runoff, can contribute to cyanobacteria blooms and then these nutrients stay in the system,” Stockwell says. “That has an impact on the bottom of food web, which impacts on how higher animals, including fish, cope. And then there are impacts on things like tourism and beach closures and property values.”

To get at these complex interactions, each student in the new program will develop an independent research project under the supervision of a UVM or Saint Michael’s College faculty mentor. And, at the same time, they will serve as the assistant to one of the other students, who will be working on the same issue from another discipline.

“We can have two students working on algae blooms but with very different questions: one ecology-focused and one society-focused,” Stockwell explains. One might be studying nutrient dynamics and one looking at property values in relationship to the location of algae blooms. “So now you're getting the students to talk across disciplines which is one of the main purposes of the program: linking the natural and social sciences,” he says.

Students from across the country are now being recruited, and the successful applicants will live on campus, receive a $5,000 stipend, travel expenses and a food allowance.

The application deadline is March 1. Prospective participants can learn more at www.uvm.edu/~ecolab/reu.

Thinking like a scientist

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the 10-week program will include faculty from across UVM, including fisheries biologists, water specialists, economists, modeling experts, hydrological engineers, social scientists and others — as well as a team from Saint Michael’s College.

“We expect to receive applications from some of the most promising and talented undergraduates in the country,” Stockwell says, but he is quick to point out that younger students are being actively sought, with several slots reserved for graduating high school seniors and first- and second-year undergraduates.

Additionally, students from institutions with limited research opportunities and underrepresented groups are especially encouraged to apply.

“Lake Champlain is heterogeneous: it’s got warm shallow bays, it’s got areas with lots of fish. We have invasive species; we have problems with eutrophication; we have causeways that isolate different regions of the lake — essentially fragmenting the lake,” Stockwell says. “It’s a really useful template for looking at lake ecology, with lessons that can be extended to other regions, including the Great Lakes.”

The UVM scientists expect that students will learn a lot about being a practicing researcher — working in the field and laboratory. A portion of the summer program will be focused on “thinking like a scientist,” Stockwell says, with short classes on research methods, experimental design, statistics and scientific writing.

And the scientists hope the students will be their partners in making some new discoveries. “For example, we don’t know very much about pharmaceutical contaminants in the lake,” Stockwell says. “We might discover that the lake is cleaner of this stuff than we thought — or, holy cow, there’s more of this stuff in here than we realized.”

And, in, the process, some new graduate students and professional scientists may be under formation, which would achieve one of the NSF’s goals of inspiring more young people to go into scientific careers.