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The Mississippi River near the U of M, with downtown Minneapolis skyline in the background

The College of Biological Sciences and the Institute of Technology's five-year, $2.8 million grant will train graduate students to study the combined effects of physical and biological changes on environmental quality, including the Mississippi River Watershed.

Getting below the surface

University lands a grant to get a grip on the forces that shape the Earth

By Deane Morrison

We all live on the surface of the Earth, but we still have a lot to learn about how nature and human activities shape the skin of our planet--and the destinies of all the creatures that depend on it. Acknowledging the crucial need for understanding these forces, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded the University's College of Biological Sciences and Institute of Technology a five-year, $2.8 million grant to train graduate students in ecology, civil engineering, and geology to study the combined effects of physical and biological changes on environmental quality. The Mississippi River Watershed will be one focus of the study. Project researchers will develop mathematical tools to evaluate the interaction between physical changes--such as dams and agricultural irrigation systems--and biological processes. The University's Institute for Mathematics and its Applications (IMA), which just received a $19.5 million grant from the NSF, will be a resource for achieving this goal. The grant also complements and augments the efforts of another NSF-funded center at the University, the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED), which received a $19.5 million grant three years ago. "The mathematical tools we develop will be used to address environmental problems such as air and water pollution, habitat restoration, and hazardous waste management," says Claudia Neuhauser, professor and head of the department of ecology, evolution and behavior, and principal investigator for the grant. The Earth's surface was created by a combination of physical and biological processes, from the movement of tectonic plates and erosion to the flow of particles and nutrients to the connections among soil, water, plants, animals, and human health.

The Earth's surface was created by a combination of physical and biological processes, from the movement of tectonic plates and erosion to the flow of particles and nutrients to the connections among soil, water, plants, animals, and human health.

"It is impossible to understand ecosystems or geomorphic processes without considering interactions between them," Neuhauser says. One part of the Mississippi River Watershed project with local impact is an investigation of how nitrogen used in agricultural fertilizers flows through natural and manmade waterways into the Mississippi River. Nitrogen runoff into the Mississippi River has wreaked havoc on ecosystems downstream, particularly where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. "The big picture is that we'll be able to collect much more data than we could in the past," says Neuhauser. "The grant will pay for wireless sensors, called motes, that can take very local data but that we can spread over large areas and see patterns." Currently, she says, most data concerns only averages. That is, one can measure the average nitrogen content of soil, the average acidity of water, or the average level of chlorophyll, but "hotspots" will be missed. For example, one can see the distribution of chlorophyll, the hallmark of oxygen-producing green plants, around the globe with satellite pictures. Or, one can measure chlorophyll over every inch of soil in a small yard. But to get a clear picture of vegetation over the span of a watershed, an in-between amount of detail would be best. Call it a Goldilocks problem--measurements must be matched "just right" to the scale of the project to ensure that the data are neither too little nor too detailed to be useful. Transport of nutrients and pollutants will also be a focus. For example, mercury produced locally in power plants may be blown east, ending up in New York City's water supply. Getting enough data to nail down patterns in the right degree of detail to ameliorate such problems is one goal. Another is to learn how to deal with the coming mountain of data, just as genomics researchers have to learn to sort out patterns of gene activity from the deluge of data contained in a single organism's genome. Six or seven graduate students will be admitted to the program a year, each with funding for two years. Faculty and students will work with the Minnesota History Center to develop K-12 teaching modules about changes in the Mississippi River watershed (among other topics) and with the Science Museum of Minnesota to provide public education about the project. The National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics, in the Institute of Technology and the Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories, the College of Biological Sciences' research station at Itasca State Park, will serve as key facilities for training and research. The grant is part of the National Science Foundation's highly competitive Integrative Graduate Education and Research Trainee Program (IGERT). Out of 639 proposals submitted this year, 20 have been funded to date.

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