Published March 25, 2013
For ten weeks every summer, thanks to a program at UB, undergraduate students collaborate with an interdisciplinary team of investigators on ecosystem restoration.
The research, which combines laboratory and field work with mathematical analysis, explores strategies for the restoration of groundwater resources, lakes, rivers, and aquatic systems, as well as engineering for sustainability. Recognized as a valuable complement to the Ecosystem Restoration through Interdisciplinary Exchange (ERIE) doctoral program at UB, the National Science Foundation recently renewed ERIE’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant, allowing the program--led by Professor Alan J. Rabideau, Department of Civil, Structural, and Environmental Engineering--to enter its fourth year.
Although most participating students are engineering majors, the projects are overseen by UB faculty across the disciplines, including Biology, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Civil/Environmental Engineering, Geography, and Geology. Students receive a $5,000 stipend for their work, during which they participate in workshops on ethics, research methods, and data analysis, as well as take field trips to learn about eco-restoration efforts throughout the lower Great Lakes area and Western New York (such as Niagara Falls, Letchworth State Park, and the Buffalo waterfront). At the end of their ten-week term, students have the opportunity to share research results through presentations at a research symposium.
Amy M. Bartlett, ERIE Program Coordinator and a specialist in stream and watershed processes, reports that the program has been mutually beneficial for faculty, students, and the communities with which they work. “The ERIE REU students have worked on some impactful projects,” she writes. These include stream and river restoration, contaminated groundwater, and pharmaceuticals in drinking water, among others. “Additionally, some students have to opportunity to work closely with the community. For example, one student last summer worked with the Tuscarora Environment Program on a wetland enhancement project. Part of that project involved working with the tribal community and incorporating cultural considerations into the larger hydrological and ecological lab research … Experiences such as these really highlight the need for well-rounded researchers who are not only trained to do scientific research, but who can successfully incorporate the social and community context of complex restoration projects.
The summer projects are chosen with the goal of allowing undergraduate researchers to work closely with faculty and doctoral students already engaged in a ecosystem restoration, with an emphasis on exposing the students to a number of academic disciplines and approaches, so as to broaden their experience as much as possible. This breadth of experience has led to undergraduates presenting results not only at ERIE’s research symposium, but at a range of scientific conferences, including, according to Bartlett, the Great Lakes Research Consortium, the Geological Society of America, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Ecological Engineering Society. They also contribute to the research that comprises eventual scholarly publications.
With the renewed support from NSF, ERIE will continue to host the program over the next three summers. While the NSF grant supports eight students from across the country, some additional UB students are able to participate via contributions from private donors. Bartlett writes, “Almost all of the former ERIE REU students successfully apply to graduate school, many at the doctoral level.” Most report that the experience of researching through ERIE inspired their decision to pursue further studies in science and engineering, thus proving the success of the program at helping to shape not only current approaches to ecosystem restoration, but enhancing the future of such research.