Student Research in Environmental Science and Geology

Qualified environmental science and geology students may choose to work with a faculty advisor on an independent research project. The choice of topic is up to you and your advisor; many students join existing faculty research projects while others pursue original ideas.  Your degree of commitment in time and effort can range from a one-credit single semester project to multi-semester comprehensive Honors research.  Independent research may count for up to four (4) credits, which may be applied toward the elective credits required for your environmental science or geology major. Any aspect of earth and environmental science can be a subject of student research.  Some current projects…

Environmental Science students study the effects of acid mine drainage on a Virginia ecosystem

IMG_4310           IMG_0941

Environmental Science students Susanna Kirschner (above left) and Jenna Stockton (above right) have been studying the effects of acid mine drainage (AMD) on the overall health of a stream ecosystem draining an area of former pyrite (iron sulfide) mines in east-central Virginia.  Working under the supervision of Dr. Melanie Szulczewski, they have quantified heavy metal concentrations and other chemical and physical parameters in soils surrounding AMD-impacted Contrary Creek in Louisa County.  An important aspect of their work is use of a sequential extraction procedure that successively releases metal ions from soil samples according to their mobility, a process that indicates the relative stability and bioavailability of the ions.  This year, they are expanding  work to include analyses of sulfur compounds that may be present in the soils.  Data collected to date indicate the soils are generally acidic (low pH) with high concentrations of certain heavy metals. Current research is examining relationships among different parameters at the site (e.g. high acidity, sulfate concentrations, heavy metal concentrations) for possible correlations and relationships to AMD.

Environmental Science student using microfossils to understand ancient environments Carter Moore

Carter Moore, a senior majoring in Environmental Science is using ostracodes (a type of microfossil) to characterize the depositional environment of the ancient sediments in which they were collected. Working with Dr. Neil Tibert and UMW’s Summer Science Institute, Carter traveled to Nova Scotia this summer to collect Carboniferous-age rock and fossil samples.  She is now continuing her work this fall by characterizing the collected sediments and identifying the fossils in UMW’s micorpaleontology lab.





Geology student studies Jurassic microfossils from Nova Scotia

Chiara Tornabene in the field 1Chiara Tornabene is a senior majoring in Geology and Classics and an international student from Italy. This summer, as part of the UMW Summer Science Institute, Chiara had the opportunity to travel to Nova Scotia with Dr. Neil Tibert to collect samples from the lake sediments of the earliest Jurassic Scots Bay Formation. The earliest Jurassic marks a period of intense climatic change and major rearrangement of the structure of terrestrial and marine environments. However, Triassic-Jurassic transition environments and faunas are poorly understood. This fall Chiara will use ostracodes (tiny microfossils) uncovered in those samples as a tool to interpret the paleoecology of this depositional environment, to improve our understanding of the evolution of freshwater environments in the earliest Jurassic, and to provide a tool to biostratigraphically correlate freshwater formations of similar age.


Students study effects of land use on two tributaries of the Rappahannock River

Environmental Science major Kelsey Moxey and Environmental Geology major Lainey LeBlanc are performing a comparative analysis of phosphorous dynamics in two second order tributaries of the Rappahannock and Potomac Basins, under the supervision of Dr. Ben  Kisila.  The objective of their undergraduate research is to determine and quantify the effects of varying land uses, stream buffers and floodplains on the phosphorous dynamics of two second order tributaries of the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers.  The Ni River a tributary of the Rappahannock and studied predominantly in Chancellorsville Battlefield is forested and limited human disturbance, which allows us to use the Ni River as the control while Sugarland Run in northern Virginia is a highly human impacted basin.  Sugarland Run located mostly in Fairfax County is densely populated and only 12% forested, the other 88% is commercial and residential property.  The prevalence of impervious surfaces allow water to runoff faster with low sediment loads causing greater stream energy leading to more intrinsic degradation in the form of bank erosion and re-suspension of originally stream stored sediments.   Ongoing sample collection included water samples during high and low flow for Phosphorous concentrations analysis and 30 – 40 cm floodplain soil cores to quantify nutrient dynamics over time.  Erosion pins have also been installed at multiple stations in each basin in order to measure bank erosion, which can be a colossal contributor of sediments and associated nutrients – a serious problem affecting the Chesapeake Bay.  The preliminary data shows Phosphorous concentrations in Sugarland Run are much higher than in the Ni River, but questions still remains on the actual sources and potential sinks, and decoupling the contributions/roles of overland flows, internal degradation/legacy sediments and the riparian buffers.  Ongoing analyses include water soluble P in the soils as well as Ca and Fe bound P in the riparian and floodplain soils.  Hopefully the study of these basins will contribute to the knowledge and understanding of nutrient dynamics in the larger Chesapeake Bay basin leading to better protection of the environment for future generations to come.