University of Vermont

Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory

Rubenstein Lab REU projects National Science Foundation logo

Potential REU Projects:

Interdisciplinary Research on Human Impacts in the Lake Champlain Ecosystem

Our REU program focuses on the intersections of human activity and societal structure with the Lake Champlain ecosystem, how these intersections have impacted Lake Champlain, and how these impacts feed back to influence human behavior and society. The strength of this framework is the opportunities for students to work in teams to link interdisciplinary approaches within the natural sciences or between the natural and social sciences. By assisting each other, students will be exposed to and better understand the connection of their primary research area to a secondary discipline and its associated methods.

The combinations of human-induced alterations to Lake Champlain (e.g., invasive species, eutrophication, and habitat fragmentation) and Lake Champlain's highly heterogeneous habitats (e.g., warm, shallow and isolated bays to deep open waters of the main lake) provide a rich template on which students can pose research questions and test hypotheses across both natural and social sciences. Below is a list of possible summer projects in which students can participate, although we also encourage students to think about other or related research projects to explore.

Project Descriptions

Project 01: Identify and characterize the heterotrophic bacteria colonizing the cyanobacterium Microcystis aeruginosa in Lake Champlain

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Heterotrophic bacteria are known to grow in and on the colonies of the bloom forming cyanobacterium Mycrocystis aeruginosa and can play mutualistic, commensal, or parasitic roles (Paerl and Millie 1996). These bacteria impact nutrient release from Microcystis (Jiang et al. 2007) and some have predicted that these bacteria can influence bloom dynamics (Maruyama et al. 2003, Berg et al. 2009). An interesting observation is that the bacteria associated with Microcystis vary dramatically depending on the geographical, biological, and physiochemical conditions of the lake and are therefore specific for particular bodies of water. We would like to identify and characterize the heterotrophic bacteria associated with Microcystis in Lake Champlain and begin to explore the interactions between some of these specific bacteria and Microcystis. Our long term goal is to understand the role of this heterotrophic community in algal bloom dynamics. The project will use a combination of basic bacterial culture, microcosm studies, and molecular techniques to describe this community. This research project will be of particular interest to anyone interested in learning more about microbial ecology. This experience will combine extensive laboratory time (75%), a little fieldwork to collect algal samples (5%), and some computer work (20%) for molecular database analyses.


Project 02: Lake community dynamics during ice-off

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Little is known about the winter-spring plankton community seasonal transition in temperate lakes (Salonen et al. 2009, Hampton et al. 2015). However, understanding winter-spring dynamics becomes increasingly important as climate change affects northern lakes, with shorter duration of ice cover and warmer spring water temperature (Magnuson 2000, Peeters et al. 2002). These changes may affect plankton community composition through light and temperature dynamics that favor some species while limiting others (Özkundakci et al. 2015). In this project, the student will develop and test hypotheses about year-to-year variation in plankton community seasonal transitions from winter (ice covered) to spring (ice-free) in two different, but very productive freshwater systems. The student will use previously collected samples from Shelburne Pond and Missiquoi Bay, Lake Champlain for their research. No prior experience is required, but the student should be interested in learning about phytoplankton and zooplankton taxonomy using microscopes and a FlowCam. In addition, the student will assist with weekly follow-up monitoring at both sites throughout the summer, including phytoplankton, zooplankton, and water quality sampling. This experience will combine laboratory time (60%), fieldwork (20%), and computer work (20%).


Project 03: Evaluating the effectiveness of presentation styles to communicate science to the general public

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Communicating science is becoming an increasingly important component of scientific “deliverables” for agencies, institutions, and individual scientists. Important advances in science can be lost on the public without effective translation and communication. For this project, the REU student will work with educators from UVM and ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain located on Burlington’s waterfront, to develop a study that examines the effectiveness of different presentation styles for translating science to the general public at ECHO. The student will assess the public's interest and knowledge about issues facing Lake Champlain and then quantitatively compare their effectiveness through surveys, interviews, or other assessment methods. This project has a lot of scope for creativity and the REU student can tap into other REU projects, including peers and mentors, for assistance and support. This experience will include extensive social science fieldwork, moderate to extensive computer work (depending on media used to produce presentations), and little to no lab work.


Project 04: Benthic invertebrate community composition of Lake Champlain

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Benthic invertebrates play a key role in the structure and function of aquatic food webs, namely through nutrient recycling and energy transfer to higher trophic levels (Covich et al. 1999). Benthic communities are not currently monitored in Lake Champlain. Historical data, however, suggest that invertebrate densities were relatively low compared to other deep lakes (Myer & Gruendling 1979). Zebra mussels, which invaded Lake Champlain in the mid-1990s, have been linked to changes in invertebrate communities in other lakes. In this study, the student will design and implement a benthic invertebrate assessment (using Ponar grab samples) to test the hypothesis that zebra mussels influence benthic community composition and biomass along a depth gradient in Lake Champlain. Results will build upon previous benthos surveys, and examine the ratio of benthic to pelagic invertebrate biomass with depth in Lake Champlain. Comparisons with historical data will aide in understanding response to environmental changes and serve as a prerequisite for predicting responses to future invasive species. The student will be trained in both field and lab methods for collecting, identifying, and analyzing invertebrate community data. A desire to learn invertebrate taxonomy and work safely on boats are preferred. This experience is expected to be a combination of fieldwork (20%) to collect samples, laboratory work (60% time) to process samples, and computer work (20%) to analyze collected and historical data.


Project 05: Preventing the spread of antibiotic resistance in Lake Champlain and urban water systems

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Antibiotic resistance represents a serious and rapidly growing human health threat worldwide. In March 2015, the White House released the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria (NAP), which outlines a whole-of-government approach to address the threats of antibiotic resistance. Soil and water serve as recipients, reservoirs and sources of antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) and antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARB). These environments can be directly affected by industrial, agricultural, and wastewater inputs of antibiotics, which impose selection pressure and enable the spread of antibiotics via diverse pathways. The project aims at quantifying ARG in typical water environments in the Lake Champlain Basin, and identifying critical areas or “hot spots” for antibiotic resistance control. Students interested in this REU project will join a research team comprised of faculty and graduate students at UVM School of Engineering and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and work on specific tasks including 1) collect water samples from the lake, wastewater treatment plants, water supply systems, and agriculture runoff in the region; 2) quantify the abundance of antibiotic resistance genes using next-generation DNA sequencing; 3) identify the environmental hot-spots of antibiotic resistance and the major sources of antibiotics in these areas. We anticipate that REU students will gain interdisciplinary knowledge in environmental engineering and public health, as well as skills in basic water chemistry, molecular biology, and data analysis from this project. This experience is expected to be a combination of laboratory work (50% time), fieldwork (20%), and computer work (30%).


Project 06: Ecological design strategies to reduce harmful algal blooms fueled by excess nutrients

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One goal of ecological design is to make interventions in degraded ecosystems that increase both human and environmental well-being. This requires detailed understanding of both external system drivers (e.g., nutrients inputs to a lake from its watershed) and internal system processes (e.g., nutrient cycling within a lake). With this knowledge, it becomes possible to explore the likelihood of success for different ecological design strategies. Researchers at UVM have been working to clarify phosphorus (P) dynamics associated with cyanobacteria blooms in Missisquoi Bay (Lake Champlain) and Shelburne Pond near Burlington. In this REU project, the student will leverage past and ongoing research in these systems to: (1) identify and address a remaining uncertainty in P dynamics to aid the ecological design process, and/or (2) perform a pilot study to evaluate the effectiveness of an ecological design solution to reduce P availability to algae. In both cases, there is potential to work either on land in the watershed (e.g., local agricultural systems) or within the aquatic environment. The student will interact with ecologists and biogeochemists, gain hands-on experience in the field and lab, and develop skills in ecological design/engineering.


Project 07: Does Increasing lake productivity decrease essential fatty acids in fish?

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In freshwater systems, eutrophication resulting from increased phosphorus inputs often increase the relative abundance of cyanobacteria, leading to cyanobacteria blooms in many instances (Schindler 1977, Brookes and Carey 2011). Cyanobacteria blooms are expected to intensify in the future with warmer temperatures resulting from climate change and increased nutrient runoff resulting from intensified land use with population growth (Paerl and Huisman 2008, O’Neil et al. 2012). Cyanobacteria are of low nutritional value, producing limited essential fatty acids (EFA; Ahlgren et al. 1990) necessary for growth and development of primary and higher consumers. Many studies have identified a direct link between zooplankton grazers that consume cyanobacteria and subsequent growth and reproduction of zooplankton (e.g., Müller-Navarra et al. 2000). Many studies have hypothesized that this negative impact propagates up food webs to fish (e.g., Brett and Müller-Navarra 1997, Graeb et al. 2004), but few if any studies have directly tested this hypothesis. In this project, the student will conduct a literature search and review to test for a relationship between EFA levels in wild fish and the productivity of lakes, including the frequency and intensity of cyanobacteria blooms. The student will be trained to read the scientific literature, recognize and extract available relevant data from the literature, and conduct statistical analyses to test the hypothesis. A strong desire to immerse one’s self into the scientific literature and to understand the biochemistry of fatty acids in food webs and in individuals are required for this project as there is no field work involved. This experience is expected to be a combination of reading the scientific literature and extracting data (75% time) and computer work (25%).


Project 08: Understanding the impacts of landuse type and moisture regime on soil phosphorus retention in the Lake Champlain watershed

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Soils in the Lake Champlain watershed provide an important ecosystem service by retaining some of the phosphorus that would otherwise be released downstream, and lead to harmful algal blooms. The predominant landuse types in riparian areas of the Lake Champlain watershed are agriculture and forest. However, the soil physical and biological properties, and therefore the capability for soil phosphorus retention could be markedly different among agriculture and forest landuse types. Furthermore, climate change models project that soil moisture regimes will be altered in New England, which could impact the ability of soil microbial communities to retain phosphorus by altering microbial activity and function. This project aims to enhance our understanding of how soils under different landuse types can retain inorganic and organic phosphorus under various moisture regimes. Interested students should be willing to both work outdoors and hone their analytical skills in the laboratory. The intern will gain field experience collecting soil samples, primarily along the Missisquoi River, a tributary of Lake Champlain that has high phosphorus loading. This project will also provide the intern with hands-on experience developing some targeted soil incubation experiments in the laboratory to test their hypotheses. Finally, the intern will work closely with their mentor to implement appropriate statistical analyses and communicate their findings to a broader audience.


Project 09: Quantifying the relationship between forest parcelization and water quality in the Lake Champlain Basin

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Vermont is the third most forested of the lower 48 states. However, for the first time in over a century, forest cover in the state is declining due to parcelization, suddivision, land clearing and other development. Changes in land cover, tenure and management have the potential to negatively impact plant and animal species, wildlife habitat, water quality, and even the viability of large tracts of forestland to contribute to Vermont’s working forest economy. From a land management perspective, it is necessary to understand the location(s) and rate(s) of change in order to minimize potential impacts. This project will use publically available data to map changes in forestland ownership over time and explore the relationship between forestland ownership and water quality within the Lake Champlain Basin. Although primarily office-based, the project offers a unique opportunity for collaborative work with an established NGO as well as cross-disciplinary research in an applied setting. Key skills include an introductory knowledge of economics and/or statistics and experience with Geographic Information Systems (GIS; or a willingness to learn). This experience will include extensive computer work, minimal field work, and no laboratory work.


Project 10: Evolutionary responses to roads and runoff in local amphibians

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The global network of roads is massive and continues to expand. In the U.S., 80% of the landscape lies within 1 km of a road. Roads contribute a host of negative effects on natural systems, spurring consequences that are both obvious—such as road-kill—and subtle—such as changes in traits and performance. Critically, though seldom considered, roads also act as agents of natural selection, driving evolutionary responses over contemporary timescales. This means that populations exposed to roads have the capacity to adapt and/or become maladapted. The detection of evolutionary outcomes occurring in contemporary time is reshaping the way we think about conservation. Recent evolutionary work in the context of road proximity has demonstrated that embryonic and larval stage wood frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) are maladapted to road-adjacency and runoff. However, it remains unknown whether this maladaptive response persists into juvenile stages, or whether a tradeoff exists. Here, we will use a combination of field-based transplant studies, surveys of wild populations, and laboratory exposure assays to evaluate whether early stage maladaptation is offset by later stage adaptation. We will work directly with several species of amphibians through multiple life history stages. Time will be split between fieldwork (50%), lab work (35%), and data entry and analysis (15%). At times, fieldwork can be arduous, particularly during wet weather, as it involves hours in waders working in swamps and other temporary wetland habitats. Similarly, lab work entailing microscopy can at times be tedious and monotonous. A good attitude with enthusiasm for the questions at hand goes a long way.


Project 11: Environmental learning, attitudes, and behavior in the Lake Champlain watershed

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As we work to address current environmental challenges, understanding peoples' engagement with and perceptions of the environment and environmental issues will likely be critical. This research project will address one little-studied nexus related to engagement: how environmental learning interacts with attitudes and values. The project will involve some combination of two fields: environmental education (with a focus on adult learning) and Cultural Ecosystem Services (the non-material benefits people receive from ecosystems, such as spiritual fulfillment and psychological well-being). Details of the research project will be determined based on student experience and interest. Research topics will include some combination of (1) environmental learning, (2) environmental attitudes and values, and/or (3) environmental behavior. Possible questions include: Does learning about invasive species changes people's attitudes toward them? Are different types of lake-based recreational experiences (e.g., sailing, kayaking, beach-going) associated with different attitudes toward the lake and its watershed? Does the language/framing of ecosystem services impact peoples' interest in or attitudes toward Lake Champlain, when compared with other framings of lake-related information? What are the strongest predictors of individual everyday lake-protective behaviors (e.g., avoiding lake-harmful cleaning supplies)? The amounts of time the student will spend on different activities (e.g., designing data collection instruments, in the field collecting data, and at the computer for data analysis) will be depend on the exact project, and will be determined by the student and mentor. The project will likely include roughly half time on social science fieldwork and half on computer-based preparation and analysis.


Project 12: Do stocked lake trout suppress wild lake trout through competition?

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Lake trout were extirpated from the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain by the 1960s, and are currently the focus of intensive efforts to restore self-sustaining populations. Stocked lake trout spawn at multiple sites in Lake Champlain, but until recently there has been virtually no evidence of survival beyond 4-6 weeks post-hatching. In 2015 we collected over 50 wild juvenile lake trout from at least three year classes. We plan to test the hypothesis that stocked lake trout yearlings, which are larger than their wild counterparts at the same time of year, compete with and may suppress survival of naturally produced juveniles. If competition is occurring, we expect isolated populations of wild and stocked juveniles to have similar diets, but in areas where they overlap their diets should diverge. If spatial overlap and competition are high, growth rates of wild juveniles are expected to be lower where they overlap with stocked juveniles. Stomach analysis will be used to compare diet composition, stomach fullness, proportion of fish with empty stomachs, and average size of wild fish from samples with and without stocked juveniles. Stable isotope and lipid analysis of wild and stocked juveniles will be used to evaluate longer-term differences in nutrition and energetic storage. The student working on this project will be trained in laboratory methods for stable isotope and lipid analysis, and identification of stomach contents for diet analysis. The project will offer the opportunity to conduct field sampling on the UVM Research Vessel Melosira. This study will involve analytical laboratory work (65% time), collection and analysis of stomach content data (25%), and field sampling (10%).


Project 13: Pollination services provided by native bees in Vermont agricultural landscapes

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Pollination is a critical ecosystem service for Vermont crops that can be improved by conserving bees and other pollinators. To manage pollination well, we need information about the local and landscape factors that influence the activity, diversity and economic role of pollinators. We are researching how landscape factors and farm management practices affect pollination services from wild bee to blueberry farms in the Champlain basin. Students will join a team of faculty, postdocs, and graduate students at the UVM Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural resources. Successful applicants will have a strong interest in pollinators, botany, field biology, landscape or community ecology. Specific tasks will include field-based plant identification, bee observation/collection, and pollen limitation experiments. We expect that REU students will gain interdisciplinary knowledge in the areas of agroecology, landscape ecology, and natural resource management, as well as skills in plant/pollinator identification, specimen curation, and data analysis. This experience is expected to comprise fieldwork (70% time), laboratory work (20% time), and computer work (10% time).


References

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Berg, K.A., et al. 2009. High diversity of cultivable heterotrophic bacteria in association with cyanobacterial water blooms. The ISME Journal 3:314-225.

Brett, M. T. & D. C. Muller-Navarra, 1997. The role of highly unsaturated fatty acids in aquatic food web processes. Freshwater Biology 38:483-499.

Brookes J. D. & C. C. Carey, 2011. Resilience to blooms. Science 334:46-47.

Covich, A.P., Palmer, M.A., and Crowl, T.A. (1999). The role of benthic invertebrate species in freshwater ecosystems: zoobenthic species influence energy flows and nutrient cycling. BioScience, 49(2):119-127.

Graeb, B. D., J. M. Dettmers, D. H. Wahl & C. E. Cáceres, 2004. Fish size and prey availability affect growth, survival, prey selection, and foraging behavior of larval yellow perch. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 133: 504-514.

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Last modified February 16 2016 11:03 AM