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Summer Research Experiences at EKU: Disturbance Ecology in Central Appalachia

Student improvising tree measurement

Faculty from EKU recently received a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant to support undergraduate student internships to study the ecological effects of anthropogenic and natural disturbances in Central Appalachia. Students in the program will be paired with faculty mentors and work full-time over the summer as part of research teams alongside faculty, graduate students, and agency professionals. The immersion in Appalachia will add a social and historical context to their research. This is a three year program and will accept 10 students per year. Recruitment will be national, but with an emphasis on encouraging students from within the region. EKU students may also apply. The program will also include teachers as part of a parallel Research Experiences for Teachers project.

The overall objective of the project is to engage students in efforts to develop science-informed solutions to the ecological consequences of human-caused disturbance in the region. Students in the program will study anthropogenic disturbance in an effort to contribute knowledge to answer the theme of our REU: What do sustainable and resilient ecosystems look like after a long period of dramatic disturbance and deconstruction, and what are the best approaches to restoration for ensuring a highly functioning alternative state?

Students will participate in all aspects of research, including study design, data collection, analyses, and presentation of results. The setting will allow students to engage with their community by communicating with scientists and the public, while exploring the implications of their own research in a setting rife with controversy related to the economic and cultural tradeoffs of resource extraction and environmental conservation.

Weekly workshops will guide students through the process of connecting their research experiences with tacit skills such as ethics, leadership, and career development. These skills are essential to many careers, including research and natural resource management. Dr. David Brown, one of the project directors, explained that “students will develop research skills and career growth strategies, while interacting with a dynamic group of colleagues and mentors.”

The research objectives of this project are to explain (1) the ecosystem impacts of coal-mining and other disturbances in central Appalachia; (2) the mechanisms and trajectory of community successional processes occurring in the wake of these disturbances; and (3) to develop restoration approaches that recognize alternative ecosystem states and feedbacks. Students and mentors will work in aquatic and terrestrial habitats at watershed and regional scales. This integrative approach, spanning aquatic and terrestrial systems across descriptive, mechanistic, and restoration processes, is unique within the framework of anthropogenic disturbance regimes of the eastern United States. The training of a diverse group of students will also contribute to a new generation of scientists. For the 2017 summer season, research projects will address specific questions within these areas: spotted skunk ecology, pollinator restoration, old-growth forest ecology, stream and wetland ecology, bird communities of hemlock forests, and human dimensions of cave bat management strategies.

Dr. Stephen Richter, the other co-Principal investigator, says “the mentors in this program are doing cutting edge ecological science, but as EKU faculty, their number one mission is training undergraduates to be good scientists.” Richter, who is an amphibian biologist, says, “everyone loves amphibians, but few get a chance to do applied research that will help conserve these declining animals. This is a great opportunity for students to gain that type of experience, but the study questions are broad enough to accommodate diverse interests in ecology.”   

The program is 10 weeks and for 2017 will run from May 22 – July 28. Benefits for students include housing on EKU’s campus and research space in the New Science Building. Much of the research for these internships will be based out of Lilley Cornett Woods, an old-growth forest site in Letcher County, Kentucky, and one of EKU’s Natural Areas. New laboratory infrastructure at this site is provided in the Research and Learning Center at Lilley Cornett Woods, which was constructed with money obtained through separate NSF funding. Student interns will also spend time at another of EKU’s Natural Areas, Maywoods Environmental and Educational Laboratory, in Garrard County.

For additional information about the program, see the REU website or email

Published on December 05, 2016

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