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Local ecosystems teach St. Lawrence students life lessons

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CANTON — You wouldn’t think that biology students need to know much about politics and economics, but those are the concepts that Erika L. Barthelmess wants her students to learn in her spring conservation biology seminar.

Ms. Barthelmess, an associate professor of biology at St. Lawrence University, has her students engage in a case study on topics of regional or local interest to Northern New York.

“The class always involves a research element,” she said. “They are always New York- or northeast-related, almost always St. Lawrence County-related.”

Shelby Southworth and Timothy Liponis studied the spread of the emerald ash borer, an invasive species that is decimating populations of ash trees in other parts of the country.

“By the time we got our hands on it this work had already been developed,” she said. “The beetle hadn’t come to New York until 2009, it is relatively new to our area, but it has been spreading around the rest of the country for over 10 years.”

Ms. Southworth said her research involved speaking to local groups who had a connection to the ash borers.

“What we had to do is look at stakeholders, like people who have a vested interest in lumber, and the Akwesasne tribes, who use ash in a lot of their cultural activities and people who enjoy ash for its recreational and aesthetic value,” she said. “It is very important in cities. After a blight wiped out other tree species, cities have used ash trees to replant areas that were decimated. Now cities have ash trees that need to be worried about them.”

Though her research is ongoing, Ms. Southworth said it was unlikely that the spread of the insect could be stopped.

“Eradication is a great thing to work for, but it is not a likely outcome — you want to work on control and minimizing the effects it will have,” she said.

Students Max L. Shafer, William J. Mook and Jonathan W. Williams looked at the potential impact of hydrofracking on animal populations.

“We’ve been focusing on the effects it will have on water, river ecosystems,” he said. “We looked at the Beaver Kill River in the Catskills, because it was a very prominent river.”

Though the Catskills are a long way from the north country, Mr. Shafer said it is likely that companies will consider drilling in areas closer to Watertown in the future.

“There are shale gas formations which make it almost to Watertown, they go underneath the great lakes,” he said. “The (New York State) Department of Environmental Conservation is deciding whether they are going to allow hydrofracking commercially, it is a statewide issue and everybody should be informed about it.”

Mr. Mook said the practice is promising for the low-cost energy it could provide, but tempered his enthusiasm with environmental concerns.

“It could be a short term solution for getting energy to America, but we also need to be investing in renewable sources,” he said. “While we have enough reserves in the US to last us 100 years, it is still a fossil fuel and we need to come up with a better solution that fills our energy needs.”

The research leads students to think about issues in biology in a more holistic way, said Ms. Southworth, a skill they can apply when they move on to professional life.

“It has been one of the most amazing course experiences I’ve ever had because you get that synthesis of ideas,” she said. “I don’t know what other majors are like, I feel like this class has given me a set of tools that I can carry with me.”

Ms. Barthelmess said interdisciplinary thinking is important for the next generation of scientists.

“They’ll be better prepared to talk about problems and bring an understanding of different perspectives to the table,” she said. “There is no way working by yourself you can be a master expert of anything — I am hoping this kind of project gives them the tools to team up with people across disciplines and cultures.”

In the past, her students have looked at the impact of the development of the Potsdam Walmart on local ecosystems, how wind turbines affect animal behavior and genetically modified crops.

At the end of the semester, students share their case studies in a series of presentations, but Ms. Barthelmess also posts the case studies online.

“I’ve had people download their papers,” she said. “I saw that Walmart downloaded the case studies students did on them. I also had previous students looking at the Tupper Lake Adirondack Club project, and a group came asking for a copy of that paper.”

“I encourage the students write letters to the editor about their research to contact local stakeholders and to share their research, and of course, the community is invited to our presentations,” she said.

This year’s presentations begin Monday at 10:50 a.m. with a look at wild leeks, or ramps, a threatened delicacy in northern New York and southern Canada.

On Wednesday, the presentations continue between 10:50 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. with presentations on lake sturgeon in the north country, the Adirondack Club project in Tupper Lake as well as the hydrofracking and emerald ash borer studies.

The presentations conclude Friday at 10:50 a.m. with a discussion of sea lamprey management in Lake Champlain. All presentations take place in room 112 of the Johnson Hall of Science on the St. Lawrence University campus.

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