Fund lets undergrads gain ecological field experience

By: Kathy Hovis,  Cornell Chronicle
October 1, 2015

Grad student Rachel Abbott and undergrads Andy Wong ‘17 and Diamond Oden ‘17 have become experts in identifying various creatures of the Adirondacks – the calanoid copepods that they’re studying, as well as myriad others that were biting them as they spent hours taking water samples in canoes.

“It’s very easy to get grumpy up there,” said Abbott, a doctoral student in the field of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB). “It’s buggy, hot and often raining and sometimes we were in the car a long time, taking trips 20 miles down a dirt road. But they didn’t complain a bit.”

Well, not a whole lot anyway. (Wong did say the days were long, the insects “vicious” and the weather “often uncooperative.”)

The three were in the Adirondacks for two weeks this summer studying a common and a rare zooplankton species to determine what characteristics of a lake are important in supporting both species and if common species are restricted to certain types of lakes or if they are habitat generalists that can live in many different environments.

Wong’s field experience was supported by the Elizabeth (“Betty”) Miller Francis ’47 fund in EEB, which pays for graduate fellowships and supports undergraduate fieldwork. Francis had strong interests in education, ecology and the environment, as well as a broad worldview attained through a lifetime of travel.

“They were instrumental in making sure our field gear was properly cleaned,” Abbott said of Wong and Oden, “which is very important since you can transmit disease and invasive organisms among lakes, and can contaminate your own samples with improperly cleaned gear. They also helped in carrying the canoe and the gear, since I’m pregnant and can’t do a lot of lifting.”

Wong spent much of his time in a canoe or raft collecting data and water samples, Abbott said.

“When you're out collecting data, it’s easy to lose track of the larger picture and you constantly have to remind yourself of what it is that this is being used for,” Wong said. “On the other hand, when reading ecology textbooks, one often skims over diagrams and figures while searching for the main idea. Before doing field research, I never realized how much trouble ecologists have gone through to collect these figures.”

Oden caught fish to see if they were eating the zooplankton.

“We have some old data from these lakes from the 1980s and 1990s when people were monitoring them for acid deposition, but no contemporary data,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s team measured the size and number of zooplankton in four Adirondack lakes that are monitored closely by Cornell researchers and several state agencies, and another 14 lakes, some of which are located on remote state land.

This year, the team used a new technique called environmental DNA, which allows researchers to collect a water sample that contains tissues like cells, scales and waste from fish and other invertebrates. This method offers an accurate estimate of the community composition in the lake because it allows researchers to pass the water through filters to collect materials, then extract the DNA from those tissues and sequence it, Abbott said.

At the same time Abbott and her crew were paddling around New York lakes, grad student Allison Tracy and Phillip Fargo ‘16 were SCUBA-diving in the waters of Puerto Rico to investigate a disease afflicting sea fan corals.

Tracy’s work focuses on co-infection, studying how well organisms affected with a disease can effectively fight another one when it attacks them.

“One of our goals is to determine whether being infected with two pathogens is better, worse or no different than single infections for the coral host,” Tracy said. “Ultimately, this research will serve as a first step toward understanding the risk posed by multiple infections for coral health and conservation.”

Using data such as temperature, depth of water and population density, Tracy hopes to uncover factors that strengthen or weaken the sea fan’s ability to fight infection. Sea fans play important roles in reefs, providing habitat and a food source, she said.

Tracy and Fargo spent their days diving to investigate and sample sea fans or conducting research in the lab of Ernesto Weil of the University of Puerto Rico, which contains a flow-through seawater system to keep corals alive while scientists study them.

Fargo said he always had a great appreciation for the water, but hadn’t done much diving as an upstate resident or any field research until this summer. He gained his SCUBA certification at Cornell.

“Allison’s work struck me as incredibly fascinating from the get-go,” Fargo said, “that such small organisms can carry the greatest problems ecologically.”

Fargo’s participation was also supported by the Betty Miller Francis Fund, along with the National Geographic Young Explorers Program.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle

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