Oct. 9, 2023
It’s Earth Science Week. Explore how VCU’s ‘river campus’ prepares students for careers in earth sciences.
Faculty members and a student reflect on their experiences at the VCU Rice Rivers Center and what makes it such a powerful resource for the university and the community.
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The Chickahominy Tribe lived there thousands of years ago. Europeans settled there several hundred years ago. Soldiers hunkered down there during the Civil War. YMCA campers learned essential outdoor skills there in the 1950s and 1960s.
The land in Charles City, Virginia, now known as VCU Rice Rivers Center lived many lives before local philanthropist Inger M. Rice, A.M., donated it to VCU in 2000. Now, VCU students and faculty make the trek from campus to do field research, yielding discoveries that inform environmental policy, ensure the quality of wetlands, provide insights into the impacts of climate change and promote wildlife conservation.
Curious about how Rice Rivers Center prepares students for careers in earth sciences? Several faculty members and a student share their insights.
When Catherine Viverette, Ph.D., assistant professor, Center for Environmental Studies, was a graduate student at VCU, she researched fisheries and fish-eating birds at Rice Rivers Center. Viverette, who received both a master’s degree and a doctorate at VCU, now helps with the center’s internship program, takes students to Rice Rivers Center to teach them field skills and, along with colleague Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D., associate professor, Center for Environmental Studies, researches the prothonotary warbler, a migratory bird whose behaviors provide insight into environmental change.
What’s special about Rice Rivers Centers?
Rice Rivers Center is like the front door to the James River. We're able to study this gradient from very urban to very rural and see how things change. The river changes from being nontidal to tidal. The salinity changes, the habitat changes, the human population changes, and to be able to observe that gradient is really a big opportunity.
How is field research at Rice Rivers Center valuable to students?
Like all the experiential learning that goes on out there, [learning at Rice Rivers Center] can be life-changing for students. It helps them decide what they want to do. Sometimes it helps them decide what they don't want to do. Working with Rice Rivers Center teaches all kinds of field skills, how to use equipment, how to be safe, how to design a field experiment, how to collect and then interpret the data with insights that cannot be recreated in a traditional classroom.
Chris Gough, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, studies forest ecology, ecosystem ecology and plant physiological ecology. His research examines the ways disturbance and climate shape ecosystem structure and function.
What value does Rice Rivers Center provide you and your students?
Rice Rivers Center is unparalleled in the sense that it has three different ecosystem types that are representative of our broader region. That includes the James River, one wetland that is in sort of restoration mode and one that’s been minimally disturbed. Those landscapes, particularly the intact wetlands, are very rare. In my class, we spend a lot of time in the upland forest, upland meaning 20 or 10 feet above the wetland. To have all of this on the same landscape is a huge opportunity for learning lots of different kinds of ecology.
What skills do students gain?
We have state-of-the-art research equipment at Rice Rivers Center. The instruments we're using to measure methane and CO2 are really high-tech instruments measuring gas concentrations at 20 times a second. So there’s this challenge of crunching those numbers. How do you take these really large data sets (this thing is running 24 hours a day and for multiple years) and distill it into something that's useful not just to ecologists and scientists, but to stakeholders, to people on the ground who might want to manage the ecosystem more effectively for carbon sequestration? Those are all tangible skills that can be applied by a researcher, land use manager, conservationist, forest ecologist and forester in the field.
Daniel Albrecht-Mallinger, an instructor in the Center for Environmental Studies who received a master’s degree at VCU, works with Viverette and Bulluck on their avian research and teaches courses to undergraduate students. He's working with faculty to implement an undergraduate course focused on applied environmental research and career skills.
What can you do at Rice Rivers Center that you can’t do elsewhere?
When we’re doing our unit on fungal diversity, there's a lot of things that you just can't identify in the field. You actually have to bring a sample back to the lab and do spore prints on white and black pieces of paper and then scrape things in. The fact that we're able to do all of that at Rice [Rivers Center] — take the samples, bring them into a lab on the site, have the equipment ready to check it out — it's an unparalleled opportunity.
How does Rice Rivers Center prepare students for careers?
Some of our students want to be environmental educators and for some of our classes, we actually have the students not just design a project but design a version of it that they could teach at the high school level. Some of our students want to go more into the route of outdoor rec and adventuring, so we have units on orienteering. How do you come up with safety plans, particularly as it comes to biotic safety? What are the hazardous plants? What are the hazardous animals in the area?
Rice [Rivers Center] also offers a really tractable open entry point for students to be thinking about research. When we teach students things in labs, they learn really valuable skills, and I don't think there's any replacement for having some benchtop time wearing a lab coat, slowly tip-tapping your findings into Excel. When you've got an outdoor research campus, no moment in nature is ever the same. But you can ask really important, world-relevant questions, like, how else are we going to draw down carbon? Is it going to happen more for wetlands versus uplands habitats? Are there some tree species that are more sensitive to a summer heat wave? The gulf between what students can see and do in a learning environment and real research is much, much smaller in that outdoor setting.
Sage Lockett, a senior environmental studies major, studied ground spider abundance and diversity at Rice Rivers Center this past summer. He hoped to determine the impact human lawn maintenance might have on ecological processes.
How did your work at Rice Rivers Center impact you?
Having a "river campus" has deeply enriched my time as an undergraduate at VCU. It developed my passion for the field of ecology and helped solidify my career aspirations. It's one thing to discuss natural environments with peers in a lecture environment, but being surrounded by a lived experience while learning is unforgettable. Nothing quite compares, especially when there's so much to see that one might miss if they had gone into the field alone.
What did you learn from your research experience?
I have gained skills in utilizing Garmin GPS software, macroscope and field guides for species identification, establishment and maintenance of both fixed and temporary belt transects, specimen collecting/specimen preservation/cards/photographic record for museum science practices, as well as data input and organization. Throughout my remaining time with the project, I hope to gain more skills in formal speaking, R coding/data analysis, specimen dissection and potential genetic analysis. The most valuable knowledge I have learned through this process is the firsthand experience of working alongside other professionals and students in an active research environment.
Learn more about Rice Rivers Center at ricerivers.vcu.edu. Visit igniter.vcu.edu/o/virginia-commonwealth-university/i/central-igniter/s/rice to help transform today’s students into tomorrow’s earth science leaders.
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