Impactful undergraduate-focused research in environmental science

Faculty affiliated with the Environmental Science (ESCI) program conduct research that has an impact on the field. Unlike at many larger schools, undergraduate students in our program are the main collaborators on many projects. In fact, many of our students present their research at national meetings and co-author papers with their faculty mentors. The ESCI program strives to create an exceptional environment for students interested in learning how to be the research leaders of tomorrow.

Here are some of the research programs run by ESCI faculty:

Dr. Kris Wammer is interested in the chemical and microbiological processes that affect the fate of organic contaminants in the environment. Students in the Wammer lab are currently involved in several projects, all of which study potential impacts of biologically active organic compounds, such as pharmaceuticals, in natural waters. One current project examines the influence of exposure to low-level concentrations of antibiotics on resistance levels in environmental bacteria. This project is in collaboration with research groups from Gustavus Adolphus College and the University of Minnesota and has a significant field-based component. Another project is focused on understanding the environmental photochemical degradation of veterinary steroids; this work is being done together with researchers at the University of Iowa, the University of Nevada Reno, and Duke University. Finally, students are studying the impacts of drinking water treatment, in particular ozonation, on macrolide antibiotics to determine if treatment results in potentially harmful byproducts.

Dr. Jeni McDermott conducts research focused on understanding how fluvial systems interact with and shape our world.  Current research projects include exploring the high relief coast of southwestern Norway using fluvial processes and low-temperature thermochonology to ‘tease’ out active faulting,  extensional faulting at the crest of the Himalaya, constraining the incision history of the Virgin River Gorge, AZ, and the (potential) link to carving of Grand Canyon, and understanding the role of catastrophic versus continual erosion in knickpoint migration in highly fractured limestone.

Dr. Jennifer McGuire and her research group investigate issues related to water quality in freshwater environments such as lakes, wetlands and drinking water aquifers. Their interests include chemical fate and transport, applied environmental toxicology, and reactive multi-phase numerical modeling.  One of their current projects is to quantify the rates at which natural processes, primarily bacterial activity, breakdown hydrocarbons from crude oil under various conditions.  Findings from this work help to improve our ability to find cost-effective clean-up strategies for oil spills.

Dr. Kyle Zimmer and his team work on a variety of questions related to the ecology of aquatic systems, with a particular emphasis on Minnesota lakes. The lab has four current projects involving UST students.  The first is assessing the relative impact of watershed features versus fish community composition on ecosystem characteristics in Minnesota shallow lakes. The second is testing the hypothesis that shallow lakes dominated by submerged plants sequester more atmospheric CO2 than do lakes dominated by algae. The third project is testing for differences in the ecological niches of different types of cisco, an important forage fish in Minnesota threated by climate change and nutrient loading. Lastly, his lab is assessing how zebra mussels alter the pathway of energy flow and predator-prey dynamics in a Minnesota lake.‌

Dr. Dalma Martinovic-Weigelt and her students conduct research on occurrence and effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals and other chemicals of emerging concern (e.g., pharmaceuticals, personal care products) in aquatic environments. The objective of this research is to develop approaches to evaluate whether these chemicals present threats to ecological and human health. Their research has a strong laboratory component and uses technologically advanced approaches (e.g., genomics, bioinformatics). While the lab conducts some research in pristine, idyllic settings, they are more likely to be found researching urban streams and wastewater. One of their more unappealing field sites is depicted in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle – a book about the meatpacking plants of the Chicago stockyards.

Dr. Chip Small and his students are conducting research on the fate of nutrient pollution in the St. Louis River Estuary and Lake Superior, combining field measurements, laboratory experiments, satellite imagery, and computer simulations. They are also working on a project in Costa Rica to understand how climate change affects the chemistry and ecology of tropical streams.

Dr. Adam Kay and his students conduct research on sustainable agriculture and ecology. One of these projects is the UST Stewardship Garden, which combines student-led research on urban agriculture, educational activities, campus outreach, and produce donations to local food shelves. Another project, the Corner Store Procurement project, involves testing ecological hypotheses in the UST greenhouse while generating produce for the Minneapolis Health Department Corner Store Program. 

Drs. Simon Emms (Biology) and Tim Lewis (Biology), along with Dr. Paul Lorah (Geography), are working on project aimed at both restoring natural habitats and capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to help offset UST’s carbon footprint. The project is restoring oak woodland, savanna, and prairie on river bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in Maplewood. It is being done in collaboration with Ramsey County, the city of Maplewood, and Great River Greening. It is being funded by UST’s Campus Sustainability Fund. In 2012, over 200 UST students participated in planting trees as part of courses in the Biology and Geography Departments. The project will also allow current and future generations of students to carry out research on ecological changes that occur on the site as the forest regrows, and to study how different varieties of oak trees perform in the face of ongoing habitat and climate change.