Jewel in New Jersey

Jewel is a sophomore majoring in chemistry and environmental science in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and is a member of the University Honors Program. Jewel was awarded a grant through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program to conduct research on rivers in the Kittatinny Mountains of northwest New Jersey during summer 2013.

Where all life is connected

Jewel This past week was incredibly busy. On Monday afternoon, the Ecology & Environmental Chemistry team split into three groups so that samples from all of the river sites could be taken in the same day. We used a YSI probe to take measurements such as pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, and temperature from the river water at each site. These recordings can clue us into the health of the ecosystem at that spot.

We also collect water in bottles to take to the laboratory. To do this, we have to stand in the river and face the opening upstream, wash the bottle out with river water three times, and then fill it and cap it. Pretty simple, but we had quite a few sites with fifteen twenty-minute drives separating them. The time adds up, and we weren’t back at the NJ School of Conservation until the late evening.

For one day in the field, we have three days in the lab at Montclair State University. We have to make chemical solutions to react with the river water samples and run them all through a machine that gives us measurements of ammonia, nitrate, orthophosphate, total nitrogen, and total phosphorus. These are separate tests that need different solutions and run at separate times. Another time-intensive test is for total and suspended solids in the water. Lots of weighing, pouring, waiting, and more weighing. Luckily, I have awesome teammates that make even the most tedious tasks fun.

An exceptionally great aspect of the REU is that it’s a research experience, not a research job. Besides the time field and lab, part of our “working hours” are trips to really cool places relevant to New Jersey’s environmental history. We visited Sterling Hill Mining Museum (they had many fluorescent rocks) and Sandy Hook Sea Grant Consortium (which turned into an afternoon at the beach). This coming Friday we’re going rafting down the Delaware River. These trips are fun and I have learned so much. As an environmental student, I hear about mining all the time, but I had never had a tour of one before or thought about how much mining has changed over the years. At the Sandy Hook beach, it was really interesting to see how people balance conservation and recreation in the same area. Our world can be quite complex and I’m grateful for the chance to learn and figure it all out for myself. I’m seeing that the environment is a platform where all life is connected. I love working on the science side of it!

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New Jersey’s Hidden Forests

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Flatbrook River in northwestern New Jersey, one of our sampling sites.

When I told my friends what I was doing this summer, most of them responded with something like “Really? But there are no forests in New Jersey!” Now I have my own proof for them that the heavily urbanized state really does have wilderness.

I am part of the program “Environmental Research on Forest Lakes” Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). It’s an internship funded by the National Science Foundation and hosted by Montclair State University in New Jersey. Along with ten other students from many different colleges, I am living in a NJ School of Conservation cabin in the beautiful Stokes State Forest. I can wake up, walk outside, and see a doe and her baby fawn less than twenty meters from my porch. I canoe in the lake nearly every evening and catch turtles. It’s pretty fantastic, and to top it all off, I’m being paid to be here!

Despite the REU title, my research will actually be about rivers. Two other students and I make up the Ecology & Environmental Chemistry team. We will be examining how urbanization affects water quality. As anyone who’s flown into Newark Airport knows, the northeastern coast of New Jersey has an extremely industrial landscape. The Passaic River, which empties into Newark Bay, is one of the top ten most polluted rivers in the United States. Yuck! Generally, the river flows from west to east, beginning in a forested rural area and moving through the increasingly developed land. We will be taking water samples from over twenty sites along the river and analyzing them for forms of nitrogen, phosphorus, and microbes. This should help us pinpoint areas where these pollutants are entering and what could be done in these specific areas.

My focus is on nitrogen, which is actually found as ammonia, nitrite/nitrate, and organic forms. It ends up in rivers and oceans mostly from storm water runoff carrying excess fertilizer from fields and lawns. Why is that an issue? Think the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Too much nitrogen can make too much algae, and too much algae can make water too dark and too deoxygenated for healthy ecosystems. It’s called eutrophication, yuck!

We will also be sampling the Flatbrook River in northwest New Jersey that is almost completely surrounded by state forests. It’s considered to be the cleanest river in the state, and I find it quite lovely. Sampling water all along this river will give us an understanding of how a river would be without the effects of urbanization.

The proposal is typed up, I’ve given the presentation, and this week I go into the laboratory to prepare for testing. Next week the field work begins!

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