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Making Waves

This story appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of Coastal Magazine

ABOVE: The spread of "Making Waves" from the Fall 2000 issue of Coastal Magazine

Making Waves

By Doug Bell

In the two years since Coastal grabbed headlines across the nation by being one of only 10 institutions to receive a prestigious $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the College of Natural and Applied Sciences has barely had time to catch its breath. The college was busy enough before the grant handling a rapidly growing enrollment and many increasingly ambitious research projects. But ever since the grant was announced in September 1998, the pace has been even more frenetic.

That’s the way Val Dunham likes it. Dean of the College of Natural and Applied Sciences since 1995, Dunham likes action and is known by his staff and colleagues for his aggressive goals and high expectations. He and John Idoux, Coastal’s provost and the principal investigator of the grant – officially known as the Integration of Research and Education (AIRE) – knew that the objectives of this particular award fit the university’s mission statement like a laboratory glove.

“The kinds of things the grant calls for – faculty-student research partnerships, collaborative projects with public schools, inquiry-based learning – Coastal was already committed to,” says Dunham. “The NSF-AIRE award gives us the chance to go beyond the usual to do some really creative, far-ringing research. Programs funded by this grant will enable us to gather data that will make a real difference in our region and beyond. And since one of the requirements of the grant is that we disseminate the results of our efforts to other institutions, Coastal is certain to exert a significant influence in science education on the national level.

Putting Waites Island (and more) on the map

In 1992 Coastal acquired a portion of Waites Island and a large tract of adjacent mainland near Little River through a gift from the Tilghman family of Marion, S.C. The property, which includes a rare sweep of undeveloped barrier island above North Myrtle Beach, is a scientist’s ideal field lab. The NSF grant is providing funding for studies which tap into the island’s rich potential for marine, biological and geological research.

Eric Pauley, assistant professor of biology, and his students are working on several studies relating to the island’s plant life. One is a comprehensive survey of the island’s vegetation which will be monitored on a continuing basis. Others include a profile of the seabeach amaranth, a threatened plant species found on coastal dunes in the Carolinas and Virginia, and a study of how pine growth habitats on the island are influenced by proximity to the ocean. A total of 36 students have taken part in these studies.

All these projects, and many others, are being brought into much sharper focus thanks to new technology made possible through the NSF grant. During the past year, a new computer facility called the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) lab has been created at the Atlantic Center, the headquarters of Coastal’s Center for Marine and Wetland Studies. The lab is a kind of high-tech map room, allowing researchers to arrange data visually on computer-generated maps.

“The most important innovation of the GIS lab is that it allows us to visualize and analyze multiple sets of data spatially,” says Eric Wright, assistant professor of marine science and co-coordinator of the lab. “For example, overlays of two or more sets of data pertaining to the same geographic area can enable us to see – actually see – all sorts of potentially significant interrelations.”

For his vegetation study of Waites Island, for example, Pauley acquired an infrared aerial photograph produced by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and transformed it, via GIS technology, into a geographically corrected map to use as a blueprint for field study. Olymphia Raines, a senior Coastal biology major of Conway, and other students are working to identify plant species in specified sample plots located throughout the portion of the island belonging to Coastal. As they proceed in their research, Pauley and his students are correlating their findings to the infrared colorings on the map. The finished map, which will be periodically updated, will be used to monitor how time and weather changes affect plant life on the island. It will also be used to complement and illustrate data from other research.

“For example, someone who is studying the island’s bird or animal habitats will be able to map their research, superimpose it onto the vegetation map and conduct a detailed comparison of the relationships between plant and animal life on the island,” says Pauley. “The GIS lab makes it possible for us to extrapolate all kinds of information as a result of this new ability we have to look at and compare our research in a spatial format.”

The potential uses of the GIS lab reach far beyond Waites Island. The lab is perfect for assimilating the many ongoing research projects relating to beach erosion and renourishment conducted under the supervision of Paul Gayes, director of the Center for Marine and Wetland Studies. The laboratory also provides an important facility for GIS-instruction and for other student projects and research.

Public school connections: the River Project

Every Tuesday morning, Matthew Brown, a 10th-grader at Aynor High School, drops a line into the Little Pee Dee River at Galivants Ferry. He isn’t cutting class and the line he casts is connected not to a rod and reel but to a meter that checks the level of pollutants in the water.

Matthew is a student in Joe Parler’s advanced biology class at Aynor High. Parler and his students are participants in the Rivers Project, developed by Coastal as part of the NSF-AIRE grant. The students take 15-minute field trips once a week to test the water in the river. As cars whiz past on the Highway 501 bridge, students run a series of tests and collect water samples which they analyze later in the classroom using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) methods.

Aynor is one of nine Horry and Georgetown county high schools taking part in the Rivers Project. The broad-based water quality monitoring program produces a wellspring of valuable data while fulfilling one of the essential requirements of the AIRE grant – to establish research partnerships between the university and the public-school system.

“There is a critical need for more scientific information on wetlands and watersheds, particularly in rapidly developing areas such as Horry and Georgetown counties,” says Susan Libes, professor of marine science and chemistry at Coastal. “Wise land use decisions are doubly important here because more than half of our area is covered by jurisdictional wetlands. The Rivers Project, in addition to giving high school students a superb opportunity to perform lab work first hand, establishes continuous volunteer monitoring programs on major area waterways. The data that these programs produce will be extremely valuable to regulatory entities such as the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).” Training sessions for participating high school science teachers were conducted during the summer of 1999 by Coastal science faculty and members of the staff of the Environmental Quality Lab at Coastal. The teachers in turn began training their students in the field beginning in September 1999.

Along the walls of Parler’s classroom at Aynor High are huge posterboards charting the progress of the students’ analysis. The graphs, plotted with colored magic markers, chronicle a range of indicators including turbidity (clearness), alkalinity, hardness, phosphate, nitrate, coliform bacteria and iron content. “This program definitely adds an element of the ‘real world’ to the classroom learning experience,” says Parler, who has taught science at Aynor High since 1973. “Most of these kids have lived their lives near this river and many of their families use it for recreational activities such as fishing and boating. Now the students are gaining a whole new perspective about the river and the importance of preserving freshwater ecosystems.”

Michael Paul Singleton, one of Parler’s students says that the river is a much more complex and fascinating place than he realized before taking the class. “When you’re swimming, it’s just water,” he said. “You don’t think about all the things that go in under the surface. It’s a whole different world.”

Starting early: Research Scholars program

Mike Lowiec has known since he was old enough to think about it that he wanted to be a marine scientist. He grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and spent a lot of time on the shore of a Canadian Island during family vacations. “I was a water baby. I was fascinated by the water and the shore and how they interrelated, and I knew I wanted a career that would allow me to explore these things.”

That settled, the decision about what college to attend wasn’t as simple. “I was considering a number of colleges when I stumbled onto Coastal by accident at a college fair at my high school,” he said. “The marine science program seemed outstanding.”

During Lowiec’s first semester at Coastal, the university received the NSF-AIRE grant. He knew that it was a momentous development for Coastal, but he didn’t know then that the grant would change his life.

In their original proposal for the NSF – AIRE grant, Idoux and Dunham made it one of their highest priorities to establish a scholarship program designed to start talented students on long-term research projects as soon as possible in their careers at Coastal. The Undergraduate Research Scholarship Program selects six incoming freshman who have outstanding high school records and are interested in scientific research. The Research Scholars receive $1,500 a year in addition to a $500 Coastal Scholars award and are immediately involved in a program of undergraduate research. During their first year, the students attend seminars on research-oriented activities and during their sophomore years, they are required to take a research methodology course. By the end of their sophomore years, research scholars are paired with faculty members to develop research programs which they will work on throughout their junior and senior years.

Lowiec applied and was awarded one of the first six scholarships. “It has done more for me than I ever imagined,” he says. Now a junior, he has already gotten a good start on his project. Working with his faculty advisor Paul Gayes, Lowiec has chosen to map the locations of hardbottom surfaces on the ocean floor which support unique ecosystems abounding with plant and animal life. “These hardbottoms are vital to the local ecosystem and very valuable for local fisheries,” says Lowiec.

Using sidescan sonar and video technologies, Lowiec conducts most of his research from the Coastal ll, the university’s research vessel, surveying the ocean floor from the shore line to approximatively five miles offshore along the length of the three-mile-long island. His research efforts are integrated with related studies by Gayes, who is working with the South Carolina Division of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Geological Survey on a series of studies investigating the geological framework and regional habitats on the inner shelf of the coastline. Lowiec is mapping his data with the aid of GIS computer technology in the Center for Marine and Wetland Studies. “Mike’s project is very valuable in that it is ‘groundtruthing,’ or verifying, the geophysics of other projects the center has undertaken,” says Gayes.

Lowiec’s research will have plenty of “real-world” applications: the sand deposits he locates in the course of his investigation may prove valuable for future beach renourishment, and the protection of hardbottom reefs will improve fishing in the area. But for now he is content to concentrate on the goal of his project which is to “find out what’s out there.” Lowiec says that his work as a research scholar helped clinch his decision to become a benthic ecologist. He hopes to develop his current research for a future master’s dissertation.

“I know we marine science students say this a lot, but it’s very true: at Coastal we get to do graduate level work which at a larger school would not be possible.”

Other NSF Research Scholars at Coastal are: Tara Arrowood, Cass Bath, Aaron Beck, Erin Boyle, Katherine Cilwa, Carrie Cybul, Chika Ekeji, Anthony Green, Tayfun Karadeniz, Traci Knight, Nicole Sayre, Emily Tarsis, Eric Teague, Troy Temple, Meredith Wright and William Zeallor. 

Other programs

The NSF-AIRE grant is broad in its scope and covers a great deal more than the programs described above. Other projects include: expanding undergraduate research in Coastal’s Department of Psychology, which has added new equipment to its laboratory; faculty and student research at the Playcard Environmental Education Center near Loris; and research projects which tie in to Coastal’s annual Celebration of Inquiry conference.

The grant also created a unique course at Coastal: Science 101, Introduction to Science. An interdisciplinary course for non-science majors, Science 101 teaches students in other majors how science fits into the context of our daily lives. This interactive class helps non-science students to become critical consumers of scientific information and instructs them in making informed decisions about life choices.

For more information about all the projects created as a result of the NSF-AIRE grant, check the website at www.coastal.edu/science.

The cover of the Fall 2000 Coastal Magazine issue.

The cover of the Fall 2000 Coastal Magazine