Dream on Ice
Thanks to generous donor support, a team of Katie biologists spent the summer conducting climate research in Iceland.
By Andy Steiner
This past summer, Associate Professor of Biology Jill Welter took two standout undergraduates on an adventure that many biologists can only dream about.
In late June, Welter, along with Bayley Lawrence SP'14 and Delor Sander SP'13, loaded 13 heavy cargo packages on a plane bound for Iceland. There, the trio joined a team of international researchers who had gathered on Iceland's Hengill watershed to study the impact of climate change on river ecosystems. They didn't return to the United States until late August.
The complex research project, which lasted for seven weeks, focused on a water system that contains as many as 18 spring-fed streams where water temperature varies by as much as 30 degrees Celsius. That provides the perfect natural laboratory for studying the impact of climate change on river ecosystems.
"For a biologist, it's a dream," laughs the ebullient Welter, whose academic research has largely focused on river ecosystems. "Hengill is the ideal natural setting for conducting our research. It's such a unique system. And the opportunity to bring students along on this project was just amazing."
Welter first learned about the Iceland project several months ago when a former colleague from her postdoctoral days at the University of California–Berkeley invited her to assemble a team of Katies and join him and his fellow researchers in Iceland.
"It was this amazing opportunity, one I couldn't afford to pass up," Welter says, "but I also knew this was going to be a very expensive trip." She pursued proposals for external government grants, but none was available to support this timely project.
"I had almost given up," Welter recalls. She then met with Lynda Szymanski, associate dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences and founder of St. Catherine's Summer Scholars program. "I told her we had this great one-time opportunity, and Lynda put us in touch with the University's development office. They found donors who stepped forward to help pay for this trip. I just couldn't believe it."
Securing financing for the Iceland research trip received the full, enthusiastic support of St. Catherine's development team, says Director of Development Beth Riedel Carney SP'82. The trip met the University's goals of expanding research opportunities for undergraduates and building new international opportunities while emphasizing the school's history of strong faculty-student collaboration.
"This was a clear connection for us," Carney says. "My team was very excited to speak with donors about this opportunity."
An enthusiastic development staff had conversations with donors about the project, and the response was quick and impressive. The money raised was enough to transport Welter, Lawrence and Sander — plus their scientific equipment (packed into those 13 cargo packages) to Iceland and back. There was even enough money to pay Lawrence and Sander to analyze the data the team gathered on the trip as well as pay for the trio to travel to upcoming national academic conferences and present their findings.
"The response was amazing," Welter says. "It showed a true support for student research."
One of the potential donors contacted by Pam McNulty, senior director of gift planning, was Joy Bergeron Hammer SP'52. When she heard about the project, Hammer was delighted to help out.
"I was intrigued because I'm a fan of what St. Kate's is doing as far as research for students," Hammer says. "Sixty years ago, when I was a student at St. Kate's, there just weren't those kinds of opportunities. I want to help students be able to do real scientific research. This is one way I can do that."
A leg up
Welter says that support from Hammer and others provides the opportunity for her students to step away from their day-to-day responsibilities and focus on science. Many of Welter's students juggle work and school and rarely have the opportunity to focus only on big-picture academic work.
"As a teacher I think that's priceless," Welter says. In Iceland, the students were able to immerse themselves in their research every day for seven weeks; now that they are back, the donor funding will enable them to continue their work and see the research through to completion."
Though the team is still in the process of analyzing its data, Welter can report that their research uncovered record rates of nitrogen fixation in the streams. Ultimately, that will help scientists analyze climate change.
"The relationship between nitrogen-fixation rates and temperature is important for understanding how freshwater ecosystems, with a complexity of interacting species, will respond to climate warming," she explains. "This study will certainly help us to understand how these complex processes interact and to make more informed climate change predictions."
This finding is exciting on many levels, explains Sander in "Fixation on Ice," the team's research blog: "Our project was extremely important because we were working with a process that no one else was studying in the watershed — nitrogen fixation. Not only were we able to gather an unprecedented data set with riveting conclusions, we were also able to strengthen the work of our collaborators working within the same system. This was a great outcome of our work, showing us what teamwork is really all about."
Welter couldn't be more pleased with how she spent her summer. "Everything we hoped would happen did happen on this trip," she exclaims. "We worked with such a great group. Both of the students had a great experience, and they got a lot out of it."
It's been particularly exciting for Welter to see how the research trip boosted Lawrence and Sander's enthusiasm about future careers in science.
"Delor is hooked on ecological research," Welter says. "She was interested in it before but now she knows she's going to do it. The whole trip confirmed her plans. She was out there contributing, doing field research, not just acting as an observer. And Bayley felt so fortunate to lead this project and make a real contribution. She told me she felt like a scientist, not a tourist. It's what she wants to do."
This is just the outcome that Hammer, a home economics major and nutritionist, was hoping for when she donated to the project.
"Having a semi-scientific background, I was interested in the Iceland project because it's a scientific field," she says. "I want to support projects like this at St. Catherine. I don't have time to do a lot of volunteer work myself, but I can contribute financially to programs that feel important to me. It's a way I can make the world a better place."