Out in the field
From pollution to climate change, U.Va. research stations tackle some of the most urgent environmental problems today.
Photo by Tom Cogill.
The sprouting of leaves and the unfurling of ferns, stretching as if from a winter’s nap, signal another season coming to Mountain Lake Biological Station, and Butch Brodie supervises the mix of activities like a stranger in a familiar land.
“I grew up as a field station brat,” he says, referring to time spent with his father, a herpetologist, at field stations far and wide. “I like field stations, and I like what they do for people.”
For Brodie — formally Edmund D. Brodie III — this particular field station is bringing a new realm of possibilities. Hired in 2006 from the University of Indiana, he is wading into his first full season as director of Mountain Lake.
That means making sure a visiting wildlife techniques class from Virginia Tech feels at home in the Giles County woods while banding birds and running trap lines.
It means helping a graduate student sort through the musty magic of Lewis Lab, the venerable wood-and-sandstone building that serves as the Rotunda of the 650-acre campus. It means preparing for an influx of roughly 100 faculty, undergraduates and graduate students from around the country.
And it means keeping tabs on research projects, such as U.Va. graduate student Kristine Grayson’s study of red-spotted newts. She had spent the morning checking enclosures at one end of the station’s pond, part of her graduate research into population dynamics and migration behavior.
“If you don’t check them every single day, they get higher mortality,” she says.
She swirls a bucket filled with newts, and Brodie dips in his hand, admiring her subjects.
Brodie knows newts. He also knows snakes. He studies them — predator and prey in a deadly dance across diverse regions and habitats.
As an evolutionary biologist, Brodie looks at relationships in mosaics, and now the interplay of elements frames his vision for Mountain Lake.
Nature and man, research and education, students and faculty, arts and science, microscopes and campfires, work and play — they all have a place, and all require his attention.
“You’re never bored up here,” he says and smiles.
The Department of Biology’s station sits atop Salt Pond Mountain at an elevation of nearly 4,000 feet.
A profusion of natural resources — centuries-old trees, abundant wildlife and one of two natural lakes in the state — combines with an absence of others — no mosquitoes, no poison ivy and no ticks — to make it a haven for researchers.
Scientists once stayed at nearby Mountain Lake Hotel while collecting samples, but in 1929 U.Va. began constructing its own facilities. Though a dormitory, aquatics lab and other buildings have risen in more recent times, many of the cabins date to the Depression.
One of Brodie’s primary goals is to upgrade accommodations and make them more family friendly. That would help in recruiting top researchers, another high priority.
“Research really is the backbone of what happens. New, high-quality research drives everything else because students want to come, you can retain your top REU students and everything else falls into place,” Brodie says.
The National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program is fundamental to Mountain Lake’s mission. The initiative started there under Henry Wilbur, a salamander specialist who served as the station’s director from 1991 until Brodie’s appointment.
“That’s been one of the big success stories,” Wilbur says. “I’ve tried hard to have it a mix of students from small colleges as well as research universities.”
Brodie hopes to build on that program as well as to expand outreach to area schoolchildren, to extend the camp’s operating season, to open the station to writers and artists and to retain as well as attract high-quality research.
A prime example of current research is the long-term junco bird study headed by evolutionary biologist Ellen Ketterson of Indiana University. Over the course of three decades, she and her colleagues have looked at, among other things, how hormones influence behavior patterns, migration and reproduction.
On the field station’s education side, what better classroom than the Jefferson National Forest to learn techniques for studying wildlife? On an early morning outing, Virginia Tech research assistants Ken Convery and Mike St. Germain demonstrate to seven students how to capture, document and band birds.
“This happens to be one of my favorite birds,” Convery says as he untangles an ovenbird from specially designed netting. “The cool thing about this bird is that it’s already banded.”
It turns out the bird had been banded the previous year in nearly the same spot — a lesson in territoriality. And so learning takes place — bird by bird, newt by newt, day by day. Even for a field station brat, it’s a remarkable place.
“In Indiana, at the end of the day I was still in Indiana. Here,” Brodie says, gesturing at the trees and sky, “I’m here.”
The state’s best-kept secret
Manuel Lerdau is striding along the gravel path of the Native Plant Trail at Blandy Experimental Farm when a movement catches his eye.
“What’s this?” he asks quietly. He stops by a massive tree stump and stoops to examine a swirl of gnat-sized insects.
“These are syrphid flies. It’s unusual to see them all clustering like this,” he says, leaning closer. “There might be some sort of mating or communal egg-laying thing going on here.”
Lerdau resumes walking and talking about what it means to be the sixth director in the 80 years since Graham Blandy bequeathed 700 acres to the University. The site serves not only as the home of the State Arboretum of Virginia but also as a vital center for research and an exquisitely groomed classroom for learners of all ages.
“I might have the best job in the world,” Lerdau says with a smile. A day can be filled with surprises and challenges, from discovering syrphids to helping students, from attending a board meeting to setting the first flames of a controlled burn.
“I started a 10-acre fire, and they paid me for it. They paid me!” he says, his voice rising with boyish glee. Excitement and wonder fuel Lerdau’s leadership as much as any of the qualifications on his resume. Environmental scientist, naturalist, professor, administrator — all are propelled by Lerdau’s contagious enthusiasm and vibrant curiosity.
As at U.Va.’s other field stations, Blandy’s core mission consists of outreach, education and research. Each has a role in plans for progress. “At Blandy, we’re land rich, human-capital rich and infrastructure poor,” he says. “A major goal of mine as director is to work with the board to raise money for a cutting-edge laboratory facility and an educational facility.”
A strategic plan is in the works to flesh out the dollar signs and designs of that goal. Meanwhile, another objective looms.
“A state senator told me that Blandy is the best-kept secret in the state,” Lerdau says. “I want to change that.”
Blandy is not a complete secret. More than 113,000 people visit the farm and arboretum annually, and about 6,000 of those are schoolchildren. A staff position was added recently to build outreach in the K-12 ranks.
“What we have to offer the public has grown a lot in the last 10 years,” says David Carr. He has been at Blandy since 1997, serving as curator and resident associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences.
One of the most recent developments is the Native Plant Trail, developed through the efforts of Nancy Larrick Crosby of Winchester and the Virginia Native Plant Society, which has headquarters at Blandy. The trail dedicates space and instructional signs to plants documented as native to Virginia when European colonization took root in the 1600s. A path winds through woodlands and meadows to crest at a pavilion overlooking wetlands.
While devoting increasing space to native plants, Blandy also serves as a center for investigating invasive species. “It’s a tool to teach both sides of that, to connect with our heritage and also about how this diversity is being threatened by non-native invasive species,” Carr says.
Projects span a spectrum of analyses. Lerdau is working with Jonathan Hickman, a graduate student from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, on a project involving the ubiquitous kudzu. Their hypothesis is that kudzu contributes to air pollution by aiding in the formation of ground-level ozone.
“If we’re right, this might be a really big deal,” Lerdau says. “If we’re wrong, well, that’s the fun thing about it.”
Lerdau inherits a rich student research environment, particularly in the REU program. Carr said participation has grown from four graduate students and four undergrads a decade ago to nearly 40 last summer.
The value of that effort can’t be quantified. Clay Morris, who had stopped by for an impromptu visit one day this spring, recalled coming to Blandy in the REU program while a student at Shenandoah University.
“The camaraderie with students was eye opening for me,” says Morris, now a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “It was nice to be around like-minded people.
“We had a lot of fun, but it was rigorous,” he says.
Lerdau was all ears. Morris’ comments capped a day of strolling amid towering conifers, of planning with board members, of checking on his kudzu in Blandy’s greenhouse and of watching a gaggle of schoolchildren bounce like a cloud of low-flying balloons amid the arboretum’s profusion of trees, shrubs and wildflowers.
“I think we’re at the cusp of something really exciting,” Lerdau says.
Looking for signs of change
Art Schwarzschild eases off the Honda 225 engine propelling the 24-foot Privateer and points to a marker in the water.
“Remember that channel marker I showed you on the chart?” he asks a group of students on the boat.
Heads nod. The chart had showed the marker right off the tip of the island.
“Well. ...” Schwarzschild gestures to the tip of Wreck Island more than a quarter of a mile away. “That’s how much it’s changed.”
In just three years, since Schwarzschild came to Oyster on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the north end of the island had lost more than 300 meters. Seeing that a mass of land could change that quickly was one of numerous lessons for members of a U.Va. environmental club on a weekend field trip to the Virginia Coast Reserve this spring.
Seeing was believing a point Schwarzschild had made earlier.
“We are in some of the most dynamic real estate in the United States, certainly the East Coast,” he says. Storms and sea-level rise cause the islands to move as much as 40 feet per year.
Studying the dynamics of change is a central function of the Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center in Oyster. The $2.5 million station, the new home of the Long-Term Ecological Research project, dramatically expands the University’s capabilities in research, education and public outreach.
In one building, dry and wet lab facilities with state-of-the-art equipment such as a freeze-dryer, cryogenic freezer and fume hoods combine working and storage space. In the attached residence building, dorm rooms with washers, dryers, kitchen space and high-speed Internet connections provide comfortable accommodations for up to 30 people. Nearly all of the rooms open to a screened-in porch.
“It’s a great spot for people to sit and talk about what they’re doing and cross-pollinate ideas,” says Schwarzschild, the center’s site director.
Three more buildings are envisioned in a complex that seems light-years from the rented Victorian house where University scientists began their research in 1986.
“The only thing that passed for a laboratory was the former living room of the building,” recalls Jay Zieman, chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences.
While change is a constant, the purpose of research has remained focused.
“Our goal is to understand how long-term changes affect the ecosystems of this region,” says Karen McGlathery, the center’s scientific director. “In particular, we are interested in the long-term changes in climate and land use. These are complex issues, and they have both scientific and societal relevance.
“For example, changes in land use as areas become more developed increase nutrient pollution in the coastal bays, and that can affect both recreation and fisheries.”
Partnerships with the Nature Conservancy, which owns the 35,000-acre Virginia Coast Reserve, and other area research institutions are also key to the University’s work. By studying the lagoons, tidal marshes and barrier islands, scientists provide data not only about incremental changes but also about ecosystem state change. Changes resulting from shifting topography are an example of the former; the wholesale loss of seagrass, the latter.
Already weakened by disease, seagrass suffered a fatal blow in 1933 when a massive hurricane devastated the Eastern Shore. Water once filtered by the plants became cloudy, blocking light to nurture plants needed to anchor sediment, shelter fish and sustain birds, scallops and other small animals.
Reversing that change is the goal of a reseeding effort undertaken last fall. Working with scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a U.Va. crew helped spread 1.5 million seeds in more than 20 acres of the coastal bays, and scientists are monitoring the results.
Such projects depend on raising awareness about the complex dynamics at work in the reserve. That dovetailed with the U.Va. environmental club’s objective. “We wanted them to see what an undeveloped pristine barrier island looks like, to see how wild these areas are and get a sense of how dynamic things are,” says Michael Erwin, the group’s adviser and a research biologist at U.Va.
The students saw the interplay between native and invasive marsh grasses. They saw nesting bald eagles off Cobb Island, and once ashore they saw oystercatchers flitting among the rocks and shells the birds use for nests.
Earlier, the students had stood on a hillside with trees wired to measure sap, PVC pipes marked to measure rainfall and plastic baskets set to collect leaves. All played into studying the relationship of plants, water and nitrogen.
Schwarzschild paused in his explanation. “Is any of this stuff exciting to you?”
Several students giggled, because only seconds earlier Erica Siegmund (Economics ’08) had turned to Sarah Collins (Architecture ’09) and silently mouthed, “Soo coool!”
Collins assured Schwarzschild.
“Yes, it’s sooooo cool!”