2020 Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates available on the Eastern Shore of Virginia (VCR LTER)!

Photo: C Johnston

Applications are due February 10th.

National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) positions are available with the Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research (VCR-LTER) program for summer 2020. VCR-LTER researchers study patterns and mechanisms of ecosystem function, connectivity, and state changes in the coastal barrier system – from mainland marshes to intertidal and subtidal bay habitats and barrier islands. Along with focusing on one of the specific projects listed below, REUs also help collect data for ongoing long-term field projects.

REUs spend the summer in a thriving research community; the VCR-LTER is based in the village of Oyster on Virginia’s Eastern Shore – one of the last coastal wildernesses on the east coast. The 10-week program begins the first week of June. REUs are provided a stipend ($4,500) plus on-site lodging and research support administered through the University of Virginia. More information about VCR-LTER research initiatives and potential advisers can be found in Research Highlights at www.vcrlter.virginia.edu. Applicants may contact potential mentors directly. Questions can be directed to Dr. Cora Johnston, the program coordinator, at coraj@virginia.edu. Applications are due February 10th and offers will be extended beginning March 1st.

Please read through the project opportunities below. All projects are based at UVA’s Coastal Research Center on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

To apply, complete the application available here: https://virginia.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_esvMWqVALJf4db7.

If you belong to an institution that is a member of the VA-NC Alliance for Minority Participation, you may also apply through the Alliance here: https://lsamp.virginia.edu/current-opportunities .


Projects available for summer 2020:

Seagrass productivity + blue carbon (Berg Lab, UVA)

VCR-LTER is the site of the largest and most successful seagrass restoration project in the world. The Berg lab (https://berg.evsc.virginia.edu/) uses front-of-the-field technologies to measure oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other gases in seagrass meadows, and how they relate to seagrass productivity and biogeochemical cycling. By measuring gas quantities and these different processes, we aim to develop a better understanding of how coastal systems such as seagrasses can help mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration. The selected REU candidate will develop and implement their own project in the VCR-LTER seagrass meadows with direct mentoring from two graduate students at the field site and advising from Dr. Peter Berg. Possible projects are available working on primary production, epiphytes, trace gases, new methods for quantifying bubbles, or anything else that fits into the framework of current projects. The REU will not only gain invaluable experience, but also have the opportunity to work with new and innovative technologies. The candidate must be comfortable on boats and working in shallow waters.


Oyster reef hydrology + ecology (Reidenbach Lab, UVA)

The REU will participate in quantifying the dual benefits of oyster growth and wave attenuation across various designs of artificial oyster reefs near Short Prong Marsh. The study will investigate which design best enhances restoration for these two purposes, with elevation as the primary independent variable of interest. Tasks will largely include deployment of wave gauges and data analysis.

The REU will also help to monitor the effects of oyster restoration on the sediment and infauna community surrounding the Short Prong oyster reefs. The REU will gain experience in collecting infauna and sediment cores, IDing infauna, and processing sediment to quantify organic matter. This data will add to 3 previous years of data, to analyze change from before construction and as the reefs develop.

There is also potential to survey various marsh edges throughout the VCR to record differences in edge morphology and relate them to the hydrodynamic environment. Tasks would include setting up edge markers and measuring retreat for marshes affronted with oysters and not. Change in marsh edge location and slope profiles would also require use of Trimble RTK GPS equipment. Independent REU investigations related to these topics are also welcome for advisement by the Reidenbach lab group.

Applicants should have taken introductory courses in ecology and/or hydrology; experience or an interest in GIS is preferred.


Seagrass biodiversity: epifaunal spatial patterns and collection methods (Castorani Lab, UVA)

A major objective of the VCR LTER is to understand how the restoration of seagrass affects biodiversity at landscape scales. However, collecting mobile animals living within seagrass meadows is challenging and prone to sampling bias. The goals of this REU position are to (1) quantify the biases introduced by different seagrass epifauna sampling methods, and (2) identify landscape-scale spatial patterns of epifaunal biodiversity. The position will involve field work collecting samples and laboratory work identifying and measuring collected animals. The ideal candidate will be excited about biodiversity, dedicated, detail-oriented, and excel in working independently and as part of a team.


Coastal forest disturbance ecology (Gedan Lab, GWU)

Two positions are available on this project.

Coastal forest trees are being killed by storm surge and groundwater salinization. As trees die off and marsh species move in, dead tree snags remain as a ghost forest. Scientists at the VCR are studying this process and the proximal controls on vegetation change in the marsh-forest boundary, in preparation for a large-scale forest disturbance experiment. We are looking for assistance in gathering baseline data on coastal forest plots that are experiencing these changes. We expect to see pine regeneration cease and adult tree stress and mortality across a gradient in saltwater exposure. As trees die, we believe that light availability changes and becomes sufficient first for shrubs, followed by marsh grasses. We are also interested in colonization and spread of the invasive species Phragmites australis within this transition zone. The student researcher will assist with data collection on measures of forest health, including tree and shrub censuses, vegetation monitoring plots, seedling counts, and litter trap sampling. By collaborating with several PIs involved in the experiment (Gedan, Kirwan, Fagherazzi, Johnson), the student will gain exposure to and skills in plant community ecology, insect ecology, geomorphology, and hydrology during the summer. Applicants should have completed a course in introductory biology, have comfort with Excel, and be comfortable being outdoors in summertime conditions. The REU student must be able to stay until early to mid-August, when the last round of plant community data will be collected. Student will be supervised by Keryn Gedan.


Carbon stock variability in seagrass meadows (McGlathery Lab, UVA)

The Virginia Coast Reserve is home to some of the most pristine coastal waters on the Eastern Seaboard and the largest successful seagrass restoration in the world, making it a unique place for studying seagrass ecology. Our research focuses on connectivity, spatial variation, and resilience of seagrass meadows, as well as their role as “blue carbon” ecosystems (i.e. long-term carbon sinks). This REU project will build on our current research investigating the drivers of seagrass carbon stock variability across spatial scales. The successful REU candidate will be mentored by Dr. Karen McGlathery and Dr. Carolyn Ewers Lewis (UVA), and will participate in both field and laboratory work. We are seeking a candidate who is interested in pursuing a career in marine ecology, hardworking, detail-oriented, self-motivated, and can work both independently and as part of a team. The candidate should also be comfortable working on boats, wading in shallow waters, handling marine specimen (e.g. sediments, seagrass plants), and using laboratory equipment (for which we will provide training).


Plant response to overwash burial on barrier islands (Zinnert Lab, VCU)

Because of the tight coupling of island ecological processes and oceanic and atmospheric drivers of disturbance (e.g. hurricanes, nor’easters, sea level rise), barrier islands are at the forefront of global climate change. Barrier islands respond to long term presses, like sea level rise, by “rolling over” (i.e. landward migration of an island) often through sediment transport onto the back-barrier marsh platform via overwash. Overwash occurs during storm events when waves and surge breach the foredune, washing sediment and saltwater into the swales and island interior. Ammophila breviligulata and Spartina patens are the two most common dune-building grasses along the Virginia barrier islands, also occurring in the island interior. Their ability to respond to burial is important in the recovery following overwash. We have established a field experiment in the island interior, where overwash would occur. Plots with equal cover of A. breviligulata and S. patens were established with plants surrounded by 20 L plastic buckets with a 30 cm diameter to contain sand. Treatments consist of five burial levels (0, 15, 30, 45, and 60 cm) in which shoreline sand was applied to replicate a natural burial disturbance from overwash. The REU student will take help with the deconstruction of this experiment. Measurements of aboveground percent cover, stem number, and plant height will be made. All biomass (aboveground, within the sand column, and below the original soil line) will be quantified and partitioned into leaf, stem, roots, rhizomes. These data will be used in a model of barrier island evolution that incorporates species characteristics. Students will work closely with members of the VCU Coastal Plant Ecology Lab (CPEL). The preferred applicant will be capable of and willing to tolerate sometimes challenging field conditions, including biting insects and prolonged exposure to high temperatures and sun.

Photo: D Lee

Ghost Forests

VCR/LTER researchers Matt Kirwan and Keryn Gedan have been featured in several recent articles and videos regarding “Ghost Forests,” the dead trees that remain when a previously-forested area is flooded with salt water. Links to the pieces are:

Time Magazine: https://time.com/5694648/ghost-forests-climate-change/

New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/08/climate/ghost-forests.html?fbclid=IwAR1rRbsKuF6BCP1MkPkY2A9yKPkgEIJqhTy60epqJYdSiMffORIxKwWc8fw