Over a Decade in the Making: ENVS and CHEM Hire an Environmental Chemist

The last few months were a little bit busy, which is reflected in the absence of recent blog posts. A lot of cool things have happened, so let’s start with the most exciting piece of news first: we hired an environmental chemist!

A long, long time ago, when I was hired to Trinity College I was told that “… and next year we’ll hire an Environmental Chemist”. 17 years and three proposals to the Educational Policy Committee later we finally succeeded. Last fall we advertised for a tenure-track position in environmental chemistry to be split between the Environmental Science Program and the Chemistry Department. We selected Arianne Bazilio from a very strong candidate pool, and we are really excited that she accepted our offer.

Arianne is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at The University of Texas at San Antonio, where she works on various projects involving the use of nanotechnology in water quality monitoring, as well as physiochemical interactions of contaminants to the built environment. She holds a PhD in environmental engineering from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, where she studied the role of manganese oxide in the formation of disinfection byproducts in drinking water treatment.

Arianne has also been a visiting instructor at Bates College where she taught various chemistry courses and supervised independent study projects and a senior thesis. Arianne will co-teach ENVS 375 (Methods) together with Amber in the fall and during the spring semester she will offer a course on environmental chemistry.

We’re looking forward to welcoming Arianne in the summer or fall. Her office will be in Clement, so make sure to say hello!

Summer Research – Krista Ehlert

Hi! I’m Dr. Krista Ehlert and I’m the Thomas McKenna Meredith ’48 Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Science (phew!). My students and I have a plethora of diverse, but connected, research projects. The Ehlert lab at Trinity is focused on ecologically based management of invasive plants, with a special focus on Berberis thunbergii, Japanese barberry. Specifically, we’re looking at the intersection between Japanese barberry, Ixodes scapularis (the black-legged tick), climate change, and Lyme disease. Forests invaded with Japanese barberry have twice as many ticks as those that aren’t; this is associated with the fact that Japanese barberry creates the ideal, humid environment that ticks need to avoid desiccation. Here’s a closer look at what we’ve already completed and are currently investigating in the Ehlert lab:

Recent ENVS alum Adam assessed different survey methods of Japanese barberry in Simsbury, CT. Adam specifically used transects and GIS to quantify the extent of invasion at our study site. Along each 50 m transect, Adam utilized a quadrat to count Japanese barberry density and cover. With GIS, Adam downloaded NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) satellite data to map Japanese barberry locations, as you can see in the map below. The NDVI values closely align with the dense shrubbery that we associated with Japanese barberry from Adam’s transects.

Adam trapped in the barberry with his quadrat.

Map displaying 2016 NDVI vegetation coverage and their equivalent values within the study site.

Blair, another recent ENVS alumna,  investigated the invasivore movement, specifically as it related to Japanese barberry. The invasivore movement is a means of eradicating invasive species through human consumption. In the past, the fruit of Japanese barberry has been used to make…jam! Blair went to work by first conducting a strong literature review of the invasivore movement and how it became popularized. Next, she spent time in the kitchen! Blair was able to successfully produce jam from Japanese barberry, providing an alternative means of controlling this insidious invader.

Blair holding the jam she produced from Japanese barberry fruit, alongside the poster she presented at the student research colloquium in Spring 2017.

Soon to be ENVS alumna Corinne and I are investigating the role of horses as potential vectors of invasive plant seeds. Corinne and I are interested in this research question because we each have a horse! Horses are able to transport invasive seeds not only through their digestive tract, with seeds ending up in their feces (eek!), but their manes, tails, and fur can also easily transport seeds. We’re focusing on the latter for Corinne’s research. Corinne started her research by conducting a survey of Intercollege Horse Show Association (IHSA) horseback riders, to learn about their attitudes toward and knowledge of invasive plants. We will be expanding upon the survey by conducting experiments with our own horses and others to investigate how far seeds can travel when attached to their fur.

Corinne presenting the results of her survey at the student research colloquium in Spring 2017.

Another soon to be alumna, Bailey from the Biology department, spent the summer along with Blair helping me with the Japanese barberry research (see previous blog post!). Bailey will be expanding on this research for her senior thesis in the Biology department, and will be co-advised by Dr. Amber Pitt and I. Specifically, Bailey will be focusing on the effect of microhabitat on black-legged tick abundance on the white-footed mouse, Peromyscus leucopus. White-footed mice are reservoirs of Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Ticks feed on mice for one of their blood meals, become infected, and move on to their next blood meal – often a human, thereby transmitting Lyme disease. Bailey will accomplish this research by using live-catch traps in the field, and counting tick load on each captured mouse; after counting is complete, the mouse will be released back into the wild. Overall, we hope that Bailey’s project sheds light on tick load on white-footed mice in a Japanese barberry infested forest.

Biology student Bailey in the field with a Japanese barberry shrub that has been uprooted.

That’s a wrap on what the Ehlert lab has accomplished and is currently doing! I’m actively looking for one or two research students this fall to help on the Japanese barberry project, so if you’re interested, send me an email at: krista.ehlert@trincoll.edu or stop by McCook 123! Or stop by if you’re interested in other invasive plant research!

Summer Research – What the Ehlert lab has been up to

Bailey (left) and Blair (right) having fun pulling Japanese barberry.

This summer, Dr. Krista Ehlert and her research students have been investigating the role of in situ climate change on different management strategies for Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), and how that in turn, affects the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis), which serves as a reservoir for Lyme disease. The two summer research students in the Ehlert lab are ENVS alumna Blair Frantz ’17 and Biology student Bailey D’Antonio ’18. A lot of the work we’ve done so far has been setting up open top climate chambers (OTCs) that utilize the greenhouse effect to increase the temperature inside the chamber by 1-3°C – what models are estimating with climate change. We also employed different management strategies for Japanese barberry, such as pulling the plant and applying herbicide and compared those to an untreated control. The data that we’ve collected includes vegetation surveys, temperature recordings, and ticks! This data will continue to be collected into the fall, and once we have a few hundred-ish (or more) ticks, we’ll be testing them for Lyme disease. Overall, we’ve had a great summer and are excited to uncover more about the indirect effect Japanese barberry has on Lyme disease incidence in Connecticut. If you want to learn more about what the Ehlert lab is up to follow us on Instagram @ thescientificlunaticks.

Japanese barberry encircled by an open-top climate chamber (OTC).

Catch of the day!

Alumni News – Jeff Abrams (’05)

Christoph’s note: Jeff was one of my first research students and probably one of the reasons why I stayed on at Trinity. He was also a heavy smoker, which led to some problems on an inflatable rubber craft …

Jeff in Mudge Pond, Summer 2004

The instructions were to discuss life after Trinity, but since my final semester as an undergraduate was spent abroad studying in the Australian rain forest, it is worth mentioning.  Trinity encourages students to study abroad, and a field study semester is a valuable addendum to the Environmental Science curriculum.  We spent most of the semester evading (usually) the multitude of venomous, spiny, and/or constricting flora and fauna native to the rain forest just inland of the Great Barrier Reef, including potentially aggressive adult-human-sized birds. We did find time to study, among other things, the mating and dietary behavior of the tooth-billed bower bird (Scenopoeetes dentirostris). After graduating I went to Florida to complete a six month internship at Archbold Biological Station. The internship was organized by Trinity Professor Joan Morrison and was primarily a study of the diet of the Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway), a threatened raptor in the falcon family.  After completing the internship, I took a Marine Fisheries Observer position with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) collecting biological data aboard commercial fishing vessels.  Then I worked briefly doing assessment and remediation of petroleum impacted groundwater surrounding gas stations before returning to a Marine Fisheries Observer position.  Somehow I keep finding my career winding back to the marine environment!

In 2010, after four years as a fisheries observer, I enrolled at Humboldt State University in Northern California (think old-growth redwood forests growing down to rugged coastline), and earned a masters of science in natural resources/fisheries biology.  My thesis work involved the study (via hook-and-line sampling!) of fishes associated with rocky habitats along California’s Northcoast.  These fishes, primarily rockfish (Sebastes spp.), are diverse, colorful, slow-growing, and slow maturing – very cool.

Science! Sampling a lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus)


.. and a canary rockfish (Sebastes pinniger) that is suffering from some barotrauma.

When I completed my masters in 2014, I was also fortunate to be able to assist with various field projects, including more hook-and-line sampling, this time as part of a cutthroat/steelhead trout introgression study, and various other salmonid related field efforts that took me to remote and beautiful California and Oregon stream reaches in search of the iconic fish.

This looks like fishing, but it is still science! Cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii), or possibly a cutthroat/steelhead hybrid?

North Fork Smith River. One of many beautiful study locations.

Despite my best efforts to make a career out of hook-and-line sampling, eventually I realized that to make the kind of impact I wanted on fisheries conservation I would need to spend less time in the field and more time with fisheries managers.  I accepted a position with the NMFS in Sacramento with the San Joaquin River Restoration Program (SJRRP).  The San Joaquin River was recently labeled the second most endangered river in the America, and the SJRRP is a valiant effort to restore a 150 mile long section of the river, including reintroducing critically threatened populations of salmon that were extirpated from the basin. But I still manage to get out of the office once in a while.

A non-experimental population Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) that is being prepped to be released into the river to spawn.

The education I received from the Trinity College Environmental Science Department prepared me well to succeed in all of these endeavors.  While all of the professors I met at Trinity College were skilled and caring educators, I would especially like to thank Professors Christoph Geiss and Joan Morrison for going above and beyond any responsibility they had to provide resources and opportunities to their students. As a side note to any current or prospective students who may be reading this: take advantage of the Environmental Science field trips that the department offers.  I was fortunate to go on two of them, and can attest that they are wonderful learning opportunities as well as a lot of fun!

Alumni News – Simon Bunyan (’13)

simon 3 - smallDuring my final semester at Trinity, I was thinking of a way to procrastinate analyzing some soil samples for a weekend. Just to savor every reading you know? I asked a friend what they were up to and it turned out our Career Center was hosting a free trip to Washington, DC to meet successful Trinity alumni. I figured…free trip to DC. Why not. At this point, I hadn’t put much thought into what I was doing post-graduation. I had some field experience at Trinity and spent my summers in a cancer research lab back home in Chicago, so I figured I’d probably go do that full-time.

It was through the DC trip that I was fortunate enough to meet with a Trinity alumna, Eleanor Kerr ’81, who helped me spark an idea. Working in DC wasn’t originally in my thoughts, but she made me think about the necessity for those who work in policy to have a solid foundation in the sciences—something that is more evident now than ever. With her help, I was able to gain an internship at a boutique lobbying firm, Kountoupes Denham, where I covered a broad portfolio of issues on the Hill and wrote memos on legislation for our clients. Here, I was able to build a foundation on policy and the way our government works (or doesn’t, since this was right before the 2013 government shutdown).

From there, I wanted to combine my science and policy knowledge and got an internship at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)—specially, with the Chemicals and Environmental Health Team. The task was an Executive Order issued by the President on improving chemical facility safety and security in response to a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. I worked on a team that coordinated with federal agencies and stakeholders to generate actionable ideas on making these facilities safer in terms of worker protection, environmental safety, and national security. Our final deliverable, after a long period of public commenting and stakeholder engagement, was a report to the President.simon 4 - small

My time at CEQ honed one of the tools that Trinity helped me develop—writing. Having the ability to work with CEQ’s communications and outreach teams prepared me for my next opportunity of writing speeches for Gina McCarthy, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  On a small team, I had the privilege of composing and guiding Administrator McCarthy’s messaging on landmark environmental policies such as the Climate Action Plan, the Clean Power Plan, and the Waters of the United States Rule. Relying on our scientists and the integrity of the scientific method, we knew that climate change was a public health issue—and we connected these policies with the people around the country who needed them—the concerned mothers of children who have asthma, the families without clean drinking water, and the elderly.simon 1 - small

Working in close proximity for a member of Cabinet made me want to take the dive into federal service. Up to this point, I saw what the Obama Administration had accomplished and I wanted in. My most recent step took me to the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (DOE’s EERE), where I was a political appointee on the team of the Acting Assistant Secretary. Here, I want to talk about everything this office has accomplished because it is nothing short of amazing:

At $2 billion a year, DOE’s EERE is one of the largest government clean energy R&D funders in the world. And through its resources in the national labs, universities, and private sector partnerships, EERE has been ushering in a clean energy revolution. Since 2008, due to EERE’s work, land-based wind power has decreased in cost by 41%, utility-scale solar PV has decreased in cost by 64%, EV batteries have decreased in cost by 73%, and type-A LED bulbs have decreased in cost by 94%. And all this while these industries and products thrive.

On the Acting Assistant Secretary’s team, I was able to work on issues that had macro-level impacts—like pushing out our Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) that lead to amazing innovation, and promulgating appliance standards that will save 3 billion tons of carbon emissions. But some of the most affirming experiences were seeing impacts on a personal level—like veterans graduating from our Solar Ready Vets program, where EERE connects veterans with the solar industry, preparing them for new, successful careers, or helping with a Solar in Your Community Challenge, where EERE facilitates a competition to provide low-income communities with solar power, so they won’t have to make that choice between a utility bill or groceries.simon 2 - small

I was able to start this journey because of the education I received from Trinity, the kindness of Trinity alumni, and the desire to be with those who like to push the needle. I am deeply grateful I got to cut my teeth on public service at the Department of Energy. Serving as an appointee of President Barack Obama and working under Secretary Ernest Moniz have been some of the great honors of my young life. Since my time at Trinity and since then, I’ve had the privilege of learning from and working alongside passionate, intelligent, dedicated people who care deeply about the direction in which this nation and the world moves. I hope to continue pushing that needle in the right direction and making it into future blogs that Professor Geiss categorizes as “generally cool stuff.”

ENVS Students Aid in Maple Avenue Clean-up

On May 6th approximately fifteen environmental science students joined the Maple Avenue Revitalization Group and assisted in their annual spring cleaning efforts.

Our group and Maple Avenue neighbors at the beginning of the event.

Our group and Maple Avenue neighbors at the beginning of the event.

Joining the effort was a challenge, since the event started on a Saturday morning, practically at the crack of dawn (9 AM). The weather was overcast and drizzly but cooperated and the big rains held off long enough to collect a considerate amount of trash.

Jackie posing with some of the collection.

Jackie posing with some of the collection.

A little bit of rain did nothing to dampen the spirits.

A little bit of rain did nothing to dampen the spirits.

We received a big thanks from our old friend Hyacinth Yennie who is already making plans for next year.

Tracy Keza Turns a Lens on Conservation and Social Justice Issues

by A. Pitt – guest blogger extraordinaire

E-M1_598_smTracy Keza, Environmental Science major and Studio Art minor, has been exploring conservation and social justice issues through the lens of her camera, and the world has taken notice. Tracy, an international student from Rwanda, said that she did not grow up with much exposure to art, but that hasn’t stopped her from being propelled into the spotlight of the art world. Tracy’s photographic foci have ranged from conservation-driven photography to highlight the work of conservation agents working to stop elephant poaching in Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, to equality-driven photography to confront racism. Keza_Elephant_AkageraHer most recent work culminated in the interactive exhibit entitled, “Hijabs & Hoodies”, which was featured at the Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building in Washington, D.C. as part of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CROSSLINES: A Culture Lab of Intersectionality this past Memorial Day weekend. Most recently, Tracy was an invited speaker and panelist at the Yale University Art Gallery as part of the Artists in Conversation series that took place on March 9. Tracy is planning on doing a series of pop-up exhibits throughout the US after graduating this May. E-M1_841_sm