Faculty Members Team Up to Develop Sustainability Curriculum


Happenings: Posted by editor on Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Faculty members James Hoffmann (far left) and Katherine Aubrecht (holding sample) are joined by Coastal Environmental Studies majors (left to right) John Papajohn, Matt Zimmerli, Emily Nocito and Akilah Lewis. (Photo: John Griffin)

Stony Brook faculty members Kate Aubrecht and James Hoffmann have experiential education down to a science — or in this case,  two sciences. During the past three years, Aubrecht, a chemist, and Hoffmann, a biologist, worked collaboratively with Sustainability Studies Program faculty members Arlene Cassidy and Jim Quigley to develop an interdisciplinary curriculum that explores the connection between chemistry and sustainability.

The team was awarded a $195,524 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create materials for two lecture courses and a lab that explore the connections between the chemistry-related and non-chemistry-related aspects of sustainability. Aubrecht crafted material for the lectures; Hoffmann, who is director of the Ecosystems and Human Impact major, helped develop the lab; and Quigley and Cassidy contributed class sessions on risk assessment and environmental economics, respectively. Their goal? To prepare students for careers in developing solutions to the environmental challenges our planet faces.

“It’s all about getting people who see themselves more as science students thinking about some of the practical applications of their work, the big problems they need to solve and how to talk to policymakers if the implication of their work is policy,” said Aubrecht, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, who works closely with the Sustainability Studies Program.

“For people who are on the policy side in sustainability studies — students who are more activists — this is all about getting them more comfortable with science and talking to scientists.”

Chemistry major Tara Schinasi ’16, who took Chemistry in Technology and the Environment — one of the courses funded by the NSF grant — said she was surprised to learn that the class was relatable to real-life situations.

“I found it interesting to hear about global warming and how people are working on things to make the environment better,” she said. “The class had given me an understanding of the chemical applications of environmental problems, something I wouldn’t otherwise find in a regular chemistry class.”

A major component of the environmental chemistry courses centers on lab work involving two solar-powered algal turf scrubbers — water-purifying devices that grow and produce algae to remove nitrogen and phosphorus — that are housed in the Life Sciences Greenhouse.

Algal turf scrubbers are not a new technology: They were developed several decades ago by Walter Adey, director of the Marine Systems Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution, but they are a recent addition to Stony Brook. Hoffmann, who had worked on similar units years ago when he was on the faculty at the University of Vermont, said he became the “tech guy” for the Stony Brook project by designing the solar-powered units. The expertise of the skilled Physics shop staff, who support research initiatives in physics, chemistry and geosciences, made Stony Brook’s algal turf scrubbers a reality.

Hoffmann said that he and Aubrecht bring different skill sets to the table but together have created a strong interdisciplinary endeavor.

“We complement each other — Kate is the chemist, I’m the biologist,” Hoffmann said. “I’m kind of a handy guy but Kate should get the lion’s share of the credit because she wrote the grant entirely and is the principal investigator, and that wasn’t an easy grant to get.”

And as much as Hoffmann downplays his role, Aubrecht is quick to point out that the reason why the team received an NSF grant is because of his expertise.

“When I came to Stony Brook I knew that I was going to be teaching an environmental chemistry course in an interdisciplinary setting and was encouraged to make connections to other disciplines,” she said. “I knew that Jim had been involved in green wastewater treatment and had a background in algae, so I reached out to him. I may be the PI on the NSF grant, but I wouldn’t have written the algal turf scrubber section of it without knowing that I had Jim on my team.”

Aubrecht said she hopes to get publishable results from studies conducted with the turf scrubbers, but the main objective isn’t to use the devices for research — it’s to give students an important teaching tool through which they can gauge the effectiveness of the technology in removing excess nutrients from water and assess the feasibility of real-world solutions, such as using algal biomass as fertilizer.

It all comes down to giving “students a more authentic learning experience,” said Aubrecht.

Emily Nocito ’16 couldn’t agree more. The coastal environmental studies major said she was eager for a hands-on experience in a lab and got that opportunity by working with the scrubbers through a course titled Chemistry for Environmental Scientists.

“Where else can I get firsthand exposure to technology like algal turf scrubbers while coming up with my own experiments?” she said. “This class focuses on topics that I am passionate about from a chemistry-driven perspective.”

And that passion is reflected in the rich interdisciplinary curriculum that the team has built.

“I believe in the mission of sustainability,” Hoffmann said. “I think it is literally a movement that is out to transform societal values and to change our behavior and consumption so that we leave something for our children. We shouldn’t be destroying our planet.” 

— By Susan Tito

turf.jpgProfessors Aubrecht and Hoffmann have designed and built two small algal turf scrubber (ATS) units for use in both a laboratory course (ENV 321- Chemistry for Environmental Scientists, Lab) and for undergraduate research. Decreasing the concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients is one of the key challenges to improve coastal water quality. Though nitrogen and phosphorus are necessary nutrients, at elevated concentrations they can cause eutrophication. Hypoxic and anoxic zones can form when increased algal growth results in increased quantities of decaying organic matter, which is then consumed by heterotrophic bacteria. An emerging green technology to reduce nutrient loadings and eutrophication in impacted waters is algal turf scrubbers (ATS), which are intentionally grown and harvested communities of attached algae (periphyton).   

turf.jpgATS technology has been shown to be effective in a variety of settings, but some challenges include: land area required, energy required, and cost-effective uses for the harvested algae. With our lab-scale size units, we are poised to investigate the latter two questions.

Our two small (1 meter wide x 1.5 meters long) Plexiglass algal turf scrubber units are designed to recirculate the water; submersible pumps bring the water from the reservoir to the top of the unit. Each unit is divided into two lanes with two separate reservoirs, pumps, and inputs. One lane has a continuous water flow- as long as the pumps are on. Water is pumped from the reservoir to the top of the ATS unit, into a polyethylene pipe with holes in it. The other lane has a trapezoidal tipping bucket.

The flow from the polyethylene pipe, which is located above the bucket, collects in the bucket. When the bucket is full, it is off-balance and spills its contents into the lane, creating a wave every 5 seconds. Each lane is lined with removable 4x4 inch travertine (calcium carbonate) tiles. The tiles can be removed individually and attached algae harvested, dried, and weighed in order to obtain growth curves as a function of time. We have made two types of tiles; “smooth”, with only a polypropylene mesh attached to the tiles as a surface for algae to attach to, and “rough” which have 1 cm acetal rods extending vertically from the surface of the tile.

turf.jpgStudents make measurements of: algal growth rates, concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients in the recirculating water (colorimetric), concentrations of metals in the recirculating water (graphite furnace atomic absorption spectroscopy, GFAA), concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in dried and digested algal biomass (colorimetric), and concentrations of metals in dried and digested algal biomass (GFAA).

Questions students are investigating include:

a) How can algal growth (and thus nutrient uptake) be maximized using only solar power?  

b) What impact do waves provided by a tipping bucket and the roughness of the surface have on algal growth rates?

c) How do the concentrations of potentially harmful metals in the algae measured by graphite furnace atomic absorption spectrometry (GFAA) compare with concentrations measured using a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (XRF)? 

  The Greenhouse Effect

greenhouse1.jpg Life Sciences Facility Is Vital Research, Teaching Resource for Campus:
Displayed prominently in the main corridor of Stony Brook University's Life Sciences Greenhouse is one of curator Mike Axelrod's favorite plants. To label Amorphophallus titanum, or corpse flower as it is commonly known, a botanical curiosity is an understatement. Resembling a pale green, mottled cucumber when it is in leaf stage, the plant is capable of producing a towering 8- to 10-foot-tall flower. A blooming corpse flower always makes headlines because it is a rare occurrence, and Axelrod is proud that Stony Brook has a specimen in its collection. Axelrod has been waiting for this flower to bloom ever since he received it as a gift from a colleague at the University of California, Davis, in 2008. Few people know about Stony Brook's corpse flower — or that there is a greenhouse in the Life Sciences Building, for that matter.

Despite the fact that the greenhouse is situated on a quarter acre and houses approximately 4,000 plants from 65 families, it is easy to see why the facility is so hard to find. Immediately to the left is a space called the atrium, which is crammed with an assortment of exotic tropical plants, such as bird of paradise, bougainvillea, Japanese sago palm — an ancient species that dates back to the time of the dinosaurs — several varieties of citrus trees, and an over-sized, barely contained banana tree, which stretches its massive, paddle-shaped foliage toward the top of the glass ceiling.
A Resource for Research
For all its relative anonymity, the greenhouse serves a vital function on campus as a living plant laboratory, research facility and teaching resource. Jessica Gurevitch, PhD, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, College of Arts and Sciences, is at home here. As a plant ecologist, she has used the facility for many years for a wide range of research projects with her students. Currently she is studying spotted knapweed, a plant that is invasive in the western United States that has begun to proliferate in New York State, particularly in certain areas of Long Island and the Adirondack Mountains. Gurevitch and her team start spotted knapweed seedlings in growth chambers and the greenhouse and carry out experiments on them to learn more about what makes them thrive. By Gurevitch's account her research, funded by the National Science Foundation, would not be possible without Axelrod and John Klumpp, assistant greenhouse curator, who provide much more than space for Gurevitch's studies — they offer a high level of expertise and support to student and faculty researchers.

Gurevitch isn't the only researcher who depends on the greenhouse. Sharon Pochron, PhD, a lecturer in the Sustainability Studies Program , is working on several projects involving earthworms and the effects that products such as Roundup® and lawn fertilizer have on the creatures. Pochron's research began in September 2012 with a team of seven students, which has since grown to more than 40. "One of the things that makes my research so popular with the students is that it is very intellectually accessible, and the greenhouse is a beautiful place to work," Pochron said. "This kind of science doesn't require mathematical modeling, computer programming or knowing how to do genetic analysis, so students can bring their critical thinking skills. And when you have an intelligent, willing student who doesn't have specialized skills, the greenhouse is a good place for them."

Mai Fahmy '15, an ecosystems and human impact major, is one of the students working on Pochron's research team. She spends many hours in Bay 5, a warm, sun-drenched space filled with rows of glass terrariums that appear to contain only soil, but are brimming with colonies of earthworms beneath the surface. "Having a greenhouse on campus makes this research possible — we couldn't have done the experiments we're running without it," said Fahmy.

Click here to see the video of Mai speaking about her research and work with Dr. Pochron in the greenhouse.

New Growth Chambers
Enhancing the greenhouse experience for many of the researchers are eight recently acquired, state-of-the-art plant growth chambers, which house different experiments being conducted at the facility. "We rely on our growth chambers for more precise controls for most of the research done here," said Axelrod. "Each chamber is basically a box that is outfitted with a small computer that allows us to manipulate variables, such as photoperiod, light intensity, temperature, etc. These features of the new growth chambers offer tremendous advantages for conducting plant research."
Behind a gray steel door labeled No. 4 is the growth chamber that houses the research of Vitaly Citovsky, PhD, a SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, College of Arts and Sciences. The chamber is critical to his program, which is funded by federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Elena Garcia, a postdoctoral researcher in Citovsky's group, is studying a soil bacterium called Agrobacterium, which causes tumors in plants, infecting them through open wounds. Garcia finds the growth chambers indispensable to her research. "We have to work in the best conditions to maintain healthy plants for our experiments in a controlled plant growth environment," she said.

From Seed to Feeding Patients
But not all the plants grown in the greenhouse are slated for research — some are destined to land on the plates of patients at Stony Brook University Hospital. Since summer 2011, Iman Marghoob has overseen an organic rooftop farm at the Hospital, which grows vegetables that are used to supplement meals for the approximately 600 patients. For the past two years she and her team have used Bay 9 in the greenhouse, which provides the space and materials for vegetable seedlings that Marghoob grows for a fundraiser held annually at the Hospital to support the farm. Marghoob wears many hats: She is a registered nutritionist and landscape designer, as well as the manager of the farm, which sprouted from a 800-square-foot space on a fourth-floor deck at the Hospital three years ago before relocating to a 2,200-square-foot space on level 3 by the Galleria.  Typically the farm produces tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, zucchini, potatoes, beets and various herbs, to name just a few of the plants grown. Marghoob said she sees the greenhouse as playing a major role not only in providing food for the Hospital, but also in educating students. "In the greenhouse you can extend the season of teaching," she said. "It provides opportunities for interns and students to learn about agriculture." Many students from the Sustainability Studies program have interned on the farm project doing research, and volunteering.
The Mission to Educate
Having the ability to teach courses year-round is essential, said Marvin O'Neal, PhD, course director for the Introductory Biology Laboratories. The greenhouse serves a support function for the labs by growing plant material used throughout the year, such as spinach for photosynthesis experiments and tradescantia for plant anatomy.
The labs, part of a rigorous two-semester sequence, are a prerequisite for all biology, biochemistry and pharmacology students. Large enrollments are the norm, especially in the fall when during a four-day period as many as 1,200 students are required to visit the greenhouse to study plant adaptation. To accommodate the influx of students, Axelrod and Klumpp have set up the bays according to plant cultural requirements.
"When students walk into the tropical bay, for example, and I ask them, 'What characteristics do plants have growing in the tropics?' they can put their textbooks down and give me the information just by making observations," said O'Neal. "It's rare that a greenhouse can provide that level of diversity — most academic greenhouses have numerous bays containing only one type of plant." But it's not only college students who benefit from the greenhouse — hundreds of visitors from various community groups and local elementary, middle and high schools tour the facility every year.
"One of our main missions here is to educate," said Axelrod, who along with Klumpp, has a background as a biology teacher. And they do a great job of it, according to Joan Kiely, director of the Biotechnology Teaching Laboratories at Stony Brook, who has brought groups of high school students to the greenhouse during the summer. "Mike and John engage the participants with discussions of plants on Long Island, food plants, ecology and current research projects," she said. "They trigger interest in science and enthusiasm for the research done here at Stony Brook." Tours include a visit to Bay 6, which contains what Axelrod considers "economically important tropical plants." Here the young visitors can learn about plant evolution and see specimens grown for food, among them, sugar cane, ginger, bay leaf and coffee, as well as a novelty plant, Synsepalum dulcificum — the miracle fruit.
For all its emphasis on education and research, the greenhouse also serves a practical purpose: Some plants are raised in the greenhouse's growth chambers and used for special events. Having the ability to grow plants year-round likely translates into cost savings for the University, but the real value of having a greenhouse on campus isn't so much about dollars and cents — it's about the acquisition of knowledge. "I would like us to utilize more of our growth chambers for new plant research projects," Axelrod said. "That and focus on the many interesting aspects of our plants and their role in educating our students, faculty and staff, as well as the community at large."

Students working on the Ecotoxiocology research were also highlighted in PBS ( Public Broadcasting System) video, click here to watch : and http://newshourbasicresearch.tumblr.com/


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