June 17, 2015
Kateri Salk is a doctoral student in zoology specializing in environmental science and policy. Her research interests include aquatic biogeochemistry, nitrogen cycling and anaerobic microbial processes. She was recently awarded the Rose Water Fellowship, endowed by Joan Rose, Homer Nowlin Chair in water research at MSU, and awarded to graduate level scientists seeking to advance the field of water science.
Growing up, my parents called me a fish. Given the choice, I would have spent more of my Minnesota summers in the water than out of it. The lakes I experienced as a child held so much wonder: the cool feel against my skin, the creatures that called that water home, and a distinct impression that these systems held secret meaning about the wider world.
Indeed, water does hold the key to much of our understanding of how the Earth works. A single water droplet can journey among the atmosphere, living organisms, hollows under the ground, crashing waterfalls, the vast ocean and many other places in infinite combinations. Freshwater systems provide an essential link between the land and open ocean. Even human civilization, in nearly every aspect, revolves around access to water.
With this important role, however, come increasing issues. Runoff from farm fields, residential lawns and urban areas brings with it a cocktail of nutrients and pollutants. When this runoff reaches water bodies, it can cause toxic algal blooms, oxygen deficiency and declines in fish stocks. Our aquatic ecosystems are fundamentally changing and the better we can understand the causes and mechanisms of these changes, the better we can manage them.
Snap back to that fish girl. She is now finding her place in this changing world and incorporating her fascination for water into a career in aquatic research. As a graduate student at Michigan State University, she has the opportunity to follow those water droplets around the world.
My research focuses on the role of nitrogen in water systems. Like other nutrients, nitrogen is an essential component of all living cells. In excess, however, nitrogen can contribute to the numerous problems plaguing water bodies today. My goal is to better understand nitrogen uptake by organisms and the mechanisms by which excess nitrogen is removed from water systems. The second part, nitrogen removal, may provide management opportunities to deal with excess nitrogen.
Here’s how nitrogen removal works: Microscopic bacteria in the water and sediment munch up that nitrogen, transforming it from a potentially problematic chemical form to a more inactive chemical form. The amount and pathway by which this process happens is dependent on a variety of environmental factors. Through research, I hope to gain a better perspective on how these controlling factors interact, with the hopes of better managing the health of water bodies.
The aspect of this that captivates me is the continued theme of interconnection. Nitrogen transformation processes occur in virtually all aquatic ecosystems, and the effects cascade through from that farm field all the way to the open ocean. Accordingly, my work has taken me from lakes and wetlands in Michigan, to the Great Lakes, and even to coastal sea grass ecosystems in Australia.
The little fish girl has grown up. She has taken on new ways to explore the water, from the top of a surfboard or with a SCUBA tank on her back. Perhaps more importantly, she has taken her enchantment with water into a career that could positively impact water health. Through research, she hopes to further illuminate the roles of aquatic ecosystems on this interconnected globe.