WMU News

Geoscientist's NSF grant funds research, student work

Dec. 1, 2004

KALAMAZOO--One of the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award programs will fund five years of research by a young Western Michigan University geoscientist, who will recruit area high school students and WMU undergraduate and graduate students to work on the project.

Dr. Carla M. Koretsky, assistant professor of geosciences, has been awarded $471,000 over the next five years for research on U.S. coastal and inland wetland areas. The award was made through the NSF's Faculty Early Career Development Program, known as the CAREER Program. CAREER grants recognize and support the early career work of teacher-scholars who are expected to become the academic leaders of the 21st century.

Koretsky's research will focus on how organisms such as marsh grasses, shrimps, crabs, and worms effect metals like cadmium, lead or copper, that are introduced into the saltwater marshes of a pristine Georgia barrier island as well as local freshwater wetlands such as Kalamazoo's Kleinstuck Preserve. Growing human populations, she says, typically mean increased metal and nutrient loading in such areas, along with significant changes to wetland hydrology and the areas' plants and wildlife.

The project, which began Aug. 1, already has a doctoral student and three WMU undergrads doing preliminary laboratory work. Koretsky is working with the Kalamazoo Mathematics and Science Center to recruit promising high school students for the work, and she says she also will recruit students for her team from nearby colleges that don't have graduate programs as well as those with significant minority enrollments. In all, she expects about 15 to 20 students to become part of her research team at some point during the five-year effort. Up to 15 additional students are likely to become involved in an educational field course related to the grant.

For the first two years, the work will focus on laboratory work and the theory behind the ways metals can impact an environment on a small scale. Koretsky says the team will undertake sophisticated laboratory work to determine how metals interact with a mineral surfaces and build predictive models of how metals and minerals bond.

"Then we'll set out to determine if those models give us a good idea of what happens in complex systems," she says. "We want to know how well the data will predict what really happens in the field. Another goal of the research is to bridge the gap between work done by environmental consultants in the field and studies completed in purely academic research efforts."

To do that, the researchers will move into the field to test their theories against what really happens in the environment when large organisms like shrimp and crabs have an additional impact on the sediment being studied. They'll also look at how the presence or lack of marsh grasses affect the changes to sediment composition.

In 2006, during the second full summer of research, Koretsky and her student team will travel to Sapelo Island along the Georgia coast to spend two and one-half weeks doing field work. The island, which is 10 miles long and two miles wide, is a long-term NSF study site for ecologists.

"One of the more interesting aspects of this project will be the opportunity for geologists to interact with ecologists," Koretsky says.

That second summer of research will be based heavily on the education side of the project, Koretsky says. After students return from Georgia, they'll have an opportunity to do research at Kleinstuck Nature Preserve to see if the lessons learned in Georgia are transferable to a northern freshwater wetland.

"The idea is to get them to look at both environments and see what the differences are," Koretsky says. "We know there will be changes as plants grow and organisms interact with the sediment. We want to know how those changes are made. We'll be looking at the tiniest changes by taking microelectrode readings right next to plant roots and in the burrows of native organisms, for instance."

After the summer of research, the students will be ready for the next step in the process--teaching local K-12 teachers how to use field-sampling techniques and incorporate simple lessons regarding metals and marshes into their curricula. The closing years of the grant will focus on controlled laboratory recreation of the field findings and presentation of the team's findings.

Koretsky, a WMU faculty member since 2000, earned a bachelor's degree in 1992 from Washington University in St. Louis, and her master's and doctoral degrees in 1995 and 1998, respectively, from Johns Hopkins University. She did post-doctoral work at Georgia Tech.

NSF CAREER grants are based on faculty proposals for creative career development plans that effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of the faculty member's institution.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 269 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

WMU News
Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
269 387-8400