“When you find something that you think is worth studying, it’s not work anymore. You genuinely want to find out what’s happening, and if you can present that information to the greater community in the end, it’s a big deal.”
— Sarah Wurzbacher
Allegheny environmental science professor Rich Bowden and his students know that patience is a virtue. As part of work that began 22 years ago at Harvard University, they’re studying the effects of acid rain in the College’s 283-acre Bousson Environmental Research Reserve.
“There are six plots of soil we take samples from—half are fertilized with nitrogen and half are not,” says Emma Helverson, an environmental science major and psychology minor. “We compare the plots and observe how far into the soil the nitrogen affects and how it alters the roots. It’s supposed to be a synthetic representation of acid rain.”
The study’s ultimate goal, according to Professor Bowden, is to reveal how acid rain alters forest eco-system productivity processes. “We’re learning that the long-term deposition of nitrogen alters the quantity and quality of roots,” he explains, “and that process alters the ability of plants to take up water and nutrients, which is needed for the forest to be productive.”
In addition to Allegheny and Harvard, the study involves Cornell University, Pennsylvania State University and a laboratory in China where samples from Bousson have been sent for further analysis. According to the Allegheny researchers, a broad range of locations is necessary because of the extent of acid rain’s effects on soil.
“Everyone uses forest products,” said Sarah Wurzbacher, an environmental science major and writing minor. “The biggest concern for everyday people is being able to better understand the mechanisms that impact forest systems and to be able to use those forests in the future.”
The Bousson acid rain study also serves as a model for other research at Allegheny, including Sarah’s senior project. Her study will focus on the effects of acid rain on entire tree systems. Although it will be a challenging experience, it is one that Sarah is eager to undertake.
“When you find something that you think is worth studying, it’s not work anymore,” she says. “You genuinely want to find out what’s happening, and if you can present that information to the greater community in the end, it’s a big deal.”
— By Hillary Wilson ’12