Hands-On Ecological Research
Monica Stegman and Maryann Tekverk spent the fall semester on Cape Cod slogging through wind-whipped salt marshes filled with brackish water and sulferous mud. For the two seniors the experience offered the opportunity to not just study marine biology but to do it.
Stegman and Tekverk, both biology majors, were part of a group of 16 students from across the country participating in the Semester in Science (SES) at the Marine Biology Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass. The program is sponsored by the MBL’s Ecosystems Center.
SES students take four classes—Science Writing, Terrestrial Ecology, Aquatic Ecology, and an elective—and conduct field and lab work. Tekverk’s lab group was assigned to Waquoit Bay in Waquoit, Mass., where they collected samples from the open beach and the salt marsh, where, Tekverk says, "If you don't know how to ‘read the grass’ properly, you fall into these mud pots—which stink of sulfur—sometimes up to your chest,” she says.
Back at the lab, the group’s task of analyzing their samples sometimes took an unexpected turn. Tekverk recalls an incident in which one of the presumed-dead fish started twitching immediately after being beheaded by one of her labmates, who reacted by screaming and fleeing the room.
SES students also design their own five-week individual projects, culminating in a detailed research paper and a PowerPoint presentation. Tekverk’s project concerned nitrate concentrations in Waquoit Bay estuary. Wood chip barriers installed beneath the bay’s beach surface, says Tekverk, provide food for bacteria that denitrify—convert nitrate to ammonia and nitrogen gas so it is removed from the environment. “These bacteria are important because there is a nitrate-loading problem in Waquoit Bay and all over the Upper Cape because of sewage disposal,” says Tekverk, who collected water samples at several sites and analyzed them for various chemical concentrations to determine the types of denitrification that occur in the estuary.
For her project, Stegman focused on the effectiveness of anti-fouling paints, which are used on the hulls of boats, piers and docks to prevent organisms such as barnacles and sea squirts from inhabiting them. “These organisms have the ability to damage these hard surfaces, compromising their stability and increasing drag on boats,” says Stegman. Anti-fouling paints commonly used today include copper; when the paint chips off, says Stegman, harbors and bays are contaminated and animals are poisoned. “Companies have been trying to create paints or coatings that have less of a negative environmental impact that can replace these toxic paints.”
She was pleased with her performance during her final, end-of-semester presentation to the Woods Hole community. “It was a glimpse of what my life will be like in the future as an ecologist.”
Both Stegman and Tekverk describe their semester at Woods Hole as a unique experience. “It was amazing to be surrounded by 15 other students with the same interests and similar life goals as me,” says Stegman.
“Coming back to Haverford and taking environmental chemistry and geology, I am realizing how much I learned at SES,” says Tekverk. “A variety of unique topics are now second nature to me.”