WCSU master’s program promotes collaborative research
Biology and physical sciences combine in study of Route 7 widening impact on biodiversity
DANBURY, CONN. — What environmental influences cause an endangered species to decline — and how can researchers from diverse scientific disciplines work together to gain a more complete understanding of the process?
A fresh approach to bringing the academic expertise and technological tools of several sciences to bear on questions of environmental change and its impact on local ecosystems will provide the basis for a new program of collaborative interdisciplinary research at Western Connecticut State University. The research will be undertaken as part of the WCSU curriculum for students pursuing the Master of Arts in Earth and Planetary Science.
Dr. Theodora Pinou, associate professor of biological and environmental sciences, noted that a departmental agreement will open the opportunity for graduate students in the earth science master’s program to participate in a WCSU research project funded by the Connecticut Department of Transportation. Under the guidance of Pinou and Dr. Mitch Wagener, chair of the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, biology graduate student Molly O’Leary has conducted field studies since 2010 to collect and analyze soil samples tracking changes in the population of an endangered salamander species along 2.3 miles of widened roadway completed in November 2009 for the U.S. Route 7 bypass in Brookfield. O’Leary is expected to graduate with a master’s degree in Biological and Environmental Sciences in May.
“What we have asked is, ‘What happens if you blacktop and integrate into the existing road a section of land that had been undisturbed for many years?’” Pinou said. “Our data have shown a decimation in the soil of invertebrate species over the past three years. Sampling in the first year after the widening showed rich diversity, but the past two years have shown a dramatic decline.”
In anticipation of moving the DOT-sponsored research project into a new phase, Pinou has discussed opportunities for research collaboration with colleagues in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Meteorology that would combine methods of inquiry from the life and physical sciences. One result is the department’s agreement to accept candidates for the M.A. in Earth and Planetary Science who will conduct cross-disciplinary research evaluating causes of the biodiversity decline in the Route 7 bypass corridor. While soil sampling will continue to demand students familiar with biological research techniques, Pinou observed the M.A. program will place heightened emphasis on studying physical environmental factors such as changing climate patterns in the region and increased heat and light generated by paved surfaces.
“Our biology students have become more aware that they also need to consider the physical nature of what’s going on in the environment,” she said. “Physics, earth science and meteorology all measure things that tell us something about how the planet is changing, and understanding these changes can help us to understand why the soil physiology is changing in the area under study.”
Pinou expects to reach out to Dr. Albert Owino, assistant professor of meteorology and director of the WCSU Weather Center, as a research collaborator who can provide guidance on field equipment and testing required to gauge the impact of reflected light and heat on the local ecosystem. She said graduate students will be challenged to broaden their scientific knowledge and research experience through instruction from and collaboration with Owino and other members of the Earth and Planetary Science faculty.
“It is only by tapping into the research interests of our faculty colleagues in other disciplines that we can go to new places and understand new things,” she said. “Developing new lines of research collaboration allows us to train students in a new way, and this could create a whole new opportunity for a future job and career.”
For more information, contact the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.
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