Wednesday, November 20, 2013

URSP Student Alex Sessums Researches Plant Functional Diversity and Wetland Ecosystem Health

My introduction to this project was in a course at GMU a year ago, Ecological Sustainability taught by my current mentor Dr. Changwoo Ahn in the EVPP department.  I learned many of the concepts underlying wetland ecology studies.  I helped establish a 40-mesocosm plant diversity experiment, which has grown into what I am looking at in my project, the resulting plant biomass after two seasons of growth of four different plant species.
What drives me towards this project is my interest in natural environment conservation and sustainability.  Taking an ecosystem approach considers interactions and balances between living and nonliving things. The goal of wetland sustainability is solving the problem of how best to sustain ecosystem functioning in the long term.  Numerous are the services provided by wetland ecosystems, clean watersheds, storm buffering, reducing soil erosion, and providing vegetation and animal habitat to name a few.  These areas are threatened by development.  Fortunately, policy decrees wetland creation to make up for wetland losses to development.  But are created wetlands as functional as those lost?
This is where I come in, researching wetland functioning in newly created wetlands, building data through research, informing policy decisions, and promoting sustainability.  Those are what I see as, my long term career goals in ecology.  The things I learn now will provide an enriched back ground for graduate education in this field.
Research has shown carbon deposits develop in created wetlands in deep open water areas and in perimeter areas of vegetation.  Does a diverse planting of species store more carbon than a less diverse planting of species?  I participate in the laboratory procedures used to measure the carbon accumulated in the soil, in the roots of the plants, and in the above ground biomass of the plants.  It has involved many hours of work done cooperatively with the students in the Wetland Ecosystem Laboratory team, “wetlanders”, directed by Dr. Ahn.  In the field in September I’ve been harvesting plants, taking root cores, transporting samples; processing soils for analysis in the lab; reviewing primary literature and laboratory procedures; recording data and doing statistical tests.
During October I have been directing a team of wetlanders in the preparation of aboveground plant tissue for carbon analysis.  I have discovered how to manage this process.  The next step is packaging the ground plant matter for elemental analysis and finally running the tests to be completed early November.   Saturday the 25th October, we go to a local wetland, currently in restoration, and take soil samples.  I would like to compare these samples to those of the mesocosm experiment.  The work is ongoing.