In order to gain a better understanding of the role plants play in the survival of local wildlife, two Baylor student researchers spent their summer in the lower Kenai Peninsula in Alaska researching the effects of alder and its nitrogen contributions to small, salmon-rearing streams.
"People rely on salmon for food and jobs," said Dr. Ryan King, associate professor of biology at Baylor who is the faculty advisor for the research. "Salmon is a multi-billion dollar industry in Alaska, and what people are doing on their land affect, the salmon they depend on."
Katie Zychowski, a Baylor senior from Houston, and Rebecca Shaftel, a Baylor graduate student from Alaska, joined King to take a closer look at the contribution nitrogen plays in this area. Nitrogen is important because it fuels microorganisms that support juvenile salmon growth and survival in streams.
The nitrogen is provided by nitrogen fixing plants, plants that can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that organism can use. In this area of Alaska, the job is done by alder.
According to King, alder is a plant often found in open areas of this peninsula, but is thought of as a nuisance by local residents and often cleared. Nitrogen from alder "feeds" the organism in the stream and therefore contributes to the growth and survivorship of salmon, making it valuable to the ecosystem.
The study began in May and is an extension of a series of ongoing studies that began in 2005. King and his students collaborated with Kachemak Bay Research Reserve and the Smithsonian Institution. The study was funded by grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
This kind of research is "geared toward training undergraduate and graduate students," King said. "Students are engaged in real research projects with more advanced scientists. The students can tap into their knowledge and experience and learn first-hand."
But the Baylor students are also taking on their own research. Zychowski, for example, is also studying the effects of phosphorus and nitrogen on the decomposition and invertebrate production in the streams.
With Mount Redoubt erupting nearby, the peninsula has seen large amounts of phosphorus-rich volcanic ash. Zychowski said Alaskans assume the phosphorus has positive effects on the growth of salmon and organisms in the stream, replacing the need for nitrogen. She said she expects to find that phosphorus does not contribute to the stream in the same way that nitrogen does.
Zychowski enrolled in aquatic biology last semester and was offered a job in King's lab soon after, processing the data from last year's trip to Alaska. After looking for a summer internship, she heard about the summer research fellowship opportunity in Alaska and decided to do it. After the fellowship, Zychowski is hoping to find a career in an environmental science-related field.