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Bradley Works

A river runs through it

 

Dr. Sherri Morris, associate professor of biology, is making a difference not only in the world, but on the Earth.

She and her students are conducting research with the hope of improving the environment. The work primarily involves two Central Illinois sites that are being restored as wetlands. In addition, she and her students are looking at the invasive garlic mustard plant in several Central Illinois locations. Dr. Kelly McConnaughay, professor of biology, and her students also are involved in the garlic mustard research, studying plant growth and plant density.

Dr. Sherri Morris collects soil samples with the help of Bradley junior Joseph Taura and Jimmie Parker, a high school student participating in Bradley’s BEST (Building Excellent Scientists for Tomorrow) summer research program.

Discussing the wetlands, Morris says, “We live in an agricultural community, and farmers use a lot of fertilizer and pesticides. What doesn’t end up on plants ends up in the river. Nitrogen and phosphorus are going down the Illinois River and ending up in the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to what is known as ‘Gulf Hypoxia.’ It’s a dead zone where no plant or animal life will thrive. Oxygen is taken up by bacteria and is not available in the water. I talk about it a lot because it’s one of the ways we here in Peoria are contributing to a more global problem.”

Morris explains she and her students are researching the impact on the soil when an area is restored as a wetland. Ducks Unlimited, an organization committed to wetlands and waterfowl conservation, purchased property along the Illinois River, about 25 miles north of Peoria near Sparland. The organization hopes that by restoring it to a wetland, a diverse bird population will return to the area. “They are changing the landscape to give it the character it once had. We are looking at what changes happen in soils as they go about this restoration,” Morris explains.

Hundreds of trees and prairie grasses have been planted in the area, and water now flows through three stair-stepped lakes before entering the Illinois River. In addition to attracting birds, wetlands decrease disturbance from floods by absorbing water. They also take up excess nutrients from nitrogen and phosphorus that have washed off treated farmland so the water leaves the area cleaner. “If you look at the Illinois River,” Morris says, “we’ve destroyed or modified it so much that we don’t have those natural filtration systems anymore.”

Senior Christine Carter began taking soil and water samples at the Sparland site last summer. Now, she is in the process of extracting nutrients to determine the effectiveness of the wetlands in removing the nutrients from the water system.

Carter, whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation through the Research Experience for Undergraduates program, comments, “I’ve always been interested in conservation and research on the environment, so this is a way to fulfill one of my goals.”

Agricultural land (above) at two Central Illinois sites is being restored to its natural state as wetland (below). Wetlands act as sponges, soaking up excess flood water and removing excess nitrogen from creek water before it enters the Illinois River. Dr. Sherri Morris and her students are studying the impact such restoration has on the soil.

Will restoration help?

About 45 miles south of Peoria near Havana, the Nature Conservancy is restoring about 7,000 acres of agricultural land known as Emiquon. “When you talk about restoration, you take disturbed habitats and return them to their native state. It’s hard to achieve because ecosystems are complex,” Morris says.

The land had been an agricultural field for 80 years. A pump at the site was used to keep the soil dry. Once the Nature Conservancy slowed the pump down, wetland areas formed. “Moisture is important in determining if carbon will collect in soil,” Morris says, noting the area is so saturated that the soil slurps when students walk out to collect samples.

Changes in land use can have dramatic results. For example, the area in front of New Orleans was so changed that it added to the impact from Hurricane Katrina. “The way we change what’s on the ground affects the impact of storms,” Morris comments.

She wonders what will happen as land is restored. “You change the flow of water by changing the soils. With the Ducks Unlimited land, they contoured the land so it would hold water. The question is, ‘Do those restoration techniques help? Have we decreased the nutrient content of the water coming into the Illinois River?’ Ten years down the road, if someone wants to use the same protocol, they need to know if it works. Does it meet the goals the folks who initiated it thought it would?”

Morris and her students collected samples before the wetland was constructed and again afterwards. They continue to collect samples for future comparison. “We have to do incubations of the soils in order to understand how nitrogen is becoming available for plant use,” she says.

In addition to wetlands restoration, Morris and her students are looking at the impact the garlic mustard plant is having on land. The invasive plant can be found in many areas, and Morris’ students are looking at Sand Ridge State Forest, Glen Oak Park, and Jubilee State Park. “As the plant moves into areas, it can change the nutrient content in soil. Those changes are detrimental for plant growth.”

Education majors also are working on a science project to see if garlic mustard in soil changes germination rates.

Invasive garlic mustard

Student research plays vital role

Morris says student research interns are invaluable. “We can ask a lot of smaller questions. Usually, we have to focus on the main component, but with students there, we can go in a number of directions. I wouldn’t have the time and energy for that if students didn’t help.”

Conversely, participating in research projects with professors is beneficial for students. “Science is a process. Hands-on research allows students to cement their knowledge. We work closely with them, so we have a good understanding of their capacity to research and cultivate leadership,” Morris says, noting professors invite students to national research meetings to present and collect research.

About 50 to 60 biology students are involved in student-faculty research each semester. Morris observes, “Undergraduate research and collaborative opportunities are a way Bradley distinguishes itself from other universities. We promote and facilitate collaboration.”

Ashlyn “Pua” Borges is a recipient of Graduate Research Assistant Sponsored Project (GRASP) funding, which provides a graduate student with a 100 percent tuition waiver and a stipend for up to two years. She comments, “A big part of why I continued here as a graduate student was the collaboration and being able to work with my professors. When you start off having no clue what you are doing and work one-on-one with someone who has done research and published for years, it’s wonderful. It’s humbling. I have friends who went to big-name schools who didn’t have that experience. If I hadn’t already done research here, I may have gone to a different school for graduate work. But, I wanted to get more answers to fit into the puzzle.”

Referring to the Emiquon site, Borges comments, “Because I’ve been here four years, I’ve seen how the site has changed over time. It was interesting to see cornfields become winter wheat fields, then see native vegetation coming out. Now the water is back, and we’re seeing birds and fish. Anyone can appreciate that huge difference.”

She adds, “This has been a great experience. I’ve gone to a national conference and to Canada where I presented our research to others from around the country and the world.”

In addition to one-on-one research projects, Morris includes research in the classroom setting and feels such research is the essence of science. “Research in the classroom allows me to bring together what science is for students. It is a process that produces a body of knowledge we all can contribute to, and that mix provides something of value.”