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Aug. 27, 2021

My Spartan Summer

By land, air and water, Michigan State researchers chronicle their summer research in the field.

drawing of a microscopeWhile vacationing crowds head to Michigan’s beaches, lakes and cities, for many Spartan scientists, the summer months are ripe for research in the field.  As one of the nation’s top research universities, Michigan State University prepares students, faculty and staff to think critically and creatively to gather important data that will help shape future conservation methods and inform public health measures across the state.

These intrepid researchers can be found drilling into steel frames from 10 feet above, navigating municipal wastewater, tracking invasive species in kayaks and mapping coastal erosion along the Great Lakes.

The following photo galleries chronicle some of the important research projects Spartans took part in this summer.

Creating drought conditions

Drawing of clouds with raindrops falling

For more than 30 years, W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, located between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, has been part of the national Long-Term Ecological Research network, where MSU researchers have studied the effects of land use intensity in agricultural landscapes on yield, soil health, food webs and more.

Led by MSU professor and principal investigator Nick Haddad, the MSU Kellogg Biological Research Station’s Long-Term Ecological Research team has discovered that no-till agriculture increases soil health and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, all while increasing agricultural yield. This summer, the team embarked upon a new experiment to find out how resilient different land uses are in response to growing-season drought.

Since drought-like conditions do not happen on command, KBS faculty, staff and students rolled up their sleeves to construct rainout shelters, which are, as the name suggests, shelters that prevent rain from hitting the ground.

As Haddad put it, the experiment provides “one of the best snapshots in the 33-year experiment.”

Constructing rain shelters, as it turns out, is super labor-intensive. Nameer Baker, science coordinator, shares what the experience was like in his Faculty voice: Keeping the rain out.

Collecting virus clues in wastewater

Drawing of goggles

The members of the MSU Environmental Virology Lab in the College of Engineering, led by Professor of Environmental Engineering Irene Xagoraraki, may be seen in the Detroit metro area in head-to-toe personal protective equipment. Wearing lab coveralls, N95 masks, goggles, nitrile gloves, steel toe shoes and hard hats, student researchers have been collecting wastewater samples every Monday since January 2018 from three different interceptor facilities in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

Drawing of manhole in sidewalk

Collecting wastewater is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is important work for so many reasons. For starters, wastewater contains viruses, which provide important clues that may inform public health protocols. Since the onset of the pandemic, the main virus extracted these days is COVID-19.

The objective is to quantify the amount of virus in a sample. This allows the lab to track and predict COVID-19 outbreaks and detect the presence of variants. Having this information available helps to warn public officials, who can then make informed decisions about pressing issues such as how to open the economy in safe ways and when to channel efforts toward vaccination drives.

While the work is far from glamorous, it is both exciting and gratifying. “Our research has real impact on people’s lives,” says Liang Zhao, a doctoral student in environmental engineering.

Environmental engineering graduate student Maddie Spooner; Zach Gentry, senior in the College of Engineering; and Brijen Miyani, doctoral student in environmental engineering, are all members of the lab and contributed to this story. To learn more about Miyani's experience, read his Student view: Preparing for a pandemic.

Diverting a Great Lakes threat

Drawing of sea lampreys swimming

In an effort to protect the Great Lakes from invasive species and to develop more eco-friendly strategies to manage invasive species, members of the Applied Behavioral Ecology Lab, or ABEL, led by Michael Wagner, associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, track sea lampreys along the White River near Whitehall, Michigan.

Doctoral student Kandace Griffin is focused on understanding lamprey behaviors to determine how to best guide them toward traps and other fishing devices. In between catch-and-release sessions, she implants 3D acoustic telemetry tracking devices to study sea lampreys’ behaviors. These devices monitor lamprey movement patterns and map their responses when exposed to a chemical lampreys release when attacked by predators.

Drawing of five test tubes in a stand

The chemical serves as an alarm cue to other lampreys. That's where master's student Emily Mensch comes in. She focuses on discovering the chemical makeup of the alarm cue. Once the composition of the chemical is known, the opportunity to manufacture it as a repellent to encourage certain migration patterns among lampreys, becomes a viable option in responding to invasive species.

By manipulating the information landscape the animal uses to decide where to go (and where not to), the ABEL lab hopes to lead lamprey into fewer rivers, creating the capacity for more targeted and efficient chemical treatments currently used to manage this devastating invader.

In her Student view: Performing surgery on sea lampreys, Griffin describes how ABEL’s efforts contribute to meaningful acts of conservation in the Great Lakes and beyond.

Mapping Michigan’s coastal erosion

Drawing of cattails

Wetlands are an important barrier to Michigan’s coastline. If they are not protected, flooding and erosion  literally will wash away both plant and animal ecosystems, not to mention people’s livelihoods.

Led by Ethan Theuerkauf, assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences in the College of Social Science, the MSU Coastal Processes and Geomorphology Lab studies the impacts of changing water levels and storm events on erosion and sediment transport in Great Lakes wetlands. According to Theuerkauf, “These geomorphic changes are understudied, yet they set the template for whether wetlands can survive changing water levels. ”Theuerkauf and two students in his lab — Megan Castro, graduate student in geography, environment and spatial sciences; and Ryan Poe, undergraduate student double majoring in civil and environmental engineering and geography, environment and spatial sciences — have spent much of the summer mapping lake beds along the coast of Saginaw Bay. What that looks like on any given day varies.

Drawing of a kayak and a paddleWhen they are not flying a drone, the team regularly tests their sea legs, using sonar technology aboard a boat and donning waders to get to those hard-to-reach spaces. Castro got creative by devising a way to collect data with GPS equipment strapped to the bottom of her kayak.

Many variables must align to conduct any of this research. Whether that’s having access to equipment (like a boat) or abandoning the day’s plan because a giant wall of fog moved in, both Castro and Theuerkauf agree coastal work forces them to be very adaptable. “Just when you feel like you’ve figured out the protocol, you learn weather conditions have changed and you develop a new method on the fly,” Theuerkauf says.

In her Student view: Almost perfect, Castro describes those moments when adaptability is key. She says, “Prepare for everything, but know you still might not be prepared.”

By: Beth Brauer and Kelsie Lane

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