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Public Relations
Posted: Tuesday Apr 10, 2012

April 11, 2012

A “jewel in the crown” of the Sis and Herman Dupré Science Pavilion at Saint Vincent College is the Evelyn and Batista Madonia, Sr. Environmental Center that houses a computer-controlled greenhouse where students and faculty can pursue research on plants and animals.

“This is probably one of the best small college educational greenhouses in the country,” commented Dr. Cynthia A. Walter, associate professor of biology, who supervises the senior research of many of the Environmental Science majors. “Although it just opened this spring, there are already so many exciting things going on here including class experiments, senior research, faculty research, campus community service and broader community outreach and service learning activities.”

In the fall, students in the Introduction to Environmental Science course completed studies on the effects of nutrient sources on early plant growth. This spring more than a hundred General Biology students will complete a plant growth regulator study of the effects of plant hormones on soybeans and other plant species. Student-designed experiments will study the effects of isolated factors such as light and nutrients on plant germination, photosynthesis and stem elongation in a wide range of food plants such as tomatoes, peas, beans, wheat, rye and corn.

Two dozen students in the Aquatic Ecology and Toxicology class will complete studies such as responses of Duckweed to common stressors, Cattail responses to components in abandoned mine drainage and the growth of biofuel microalgae species in response to different nutrient sources such as sanitized wastes from cafeteria leftovers, waste water treatment solids or fish tank outflow.

Next fall the Field Biology class will complete a study of wetland plant germination and early growth and Ecology students will experiment with the growth of crops (soy and corn) and wetland plants (cattails and juncus) in different hydroponic culture conditions.

Senior research will focus on biofuel microalgae, comparing growth and biofuel chemical constituents among marine and freshwater species and selected soil invertebrate responses to varying soil conditions. Faculty research will range from growing plants for the extraction of antibiotics to monitoring behavior of wild birds or snakes held for short periods of time in nearly ambient outdoor conditions.

This spring, Benedictine gardeners are starting seedlings in the greenhouse for later planting in their Monastery gardens and Saint Vincent faculty and staff will start selected flowers in the greenhouse for transplanting to various areas around campus.

Planned service learning projects will connect students with volunteers from the Latrobe Garden Club and the Penn State Extension Service’s Master Gardener Program to start seedlings of tomatoes, green peppers, broccoli and cauliflower for Food Bank plantings. Seedlings of special genotypes such as heritage vegetable plants will also be started for later planting in historical gardens in the area including the Lochrie Blockhouse adjacent to the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve.

Dr. Walter forecasts that, in the next ten years, research based on what students are learning in this new facility today will make it possible to reduce the use of fossil fuels by at least 40%. “Not so far off in the future, we are going to be putting algae biofuel into our cars,” she predicted. “We won’t need oil or gas. We will be able to use biofuels that are grown using nutrients that are currently discarded from sewage treatment plants. That is exactly the kind of work our students are learning here right now. Researchers are working hard to find the perfect mixture of nutrients, light and other factors. Students are studying it in one of my classes on Aquatic Toxicology. They understand this is a hot topic that will open doors for them in jobs, research and education after they graduate.”

The Dupré Pavilion is making a tremendous difference in the education of Environmental Science students. “I don’t think any other school in the country has a ‘mud room’ like we have,” Dr. Walter boasted. “Since most of my teaching is done outdoors, we need a safe way to bring materials and students in and out. Students need to wear waist-high boots that can be sanitized coming and going so they prevent the transfer of pathogens from one stream to another. We have a special room equipped with hoses and hot water where we can clean boots and store them conveniently. Our unique stainless steel boot rack is just one example of the many details our lab designers added to make our teaching more effective and ecologically sound. In addition, our field equipment room and adjacent teaching and research labs provide direct access to the loading area to safely and quickly move people, equipment and samples from trips to the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve, Saint Vincent Lake or other outdoor sites. These are just a few examples of the well-planned details that are part of this wonderful facility.”

Elizabeth Miller, a junior majoring in environmental science with minors in biology, chemistry and German, explained her senior research project. “My project is going to include studying soil invertebrates and the effects of lead on them. I am going to be sampling different invertebrates from roadside soils and measuring the amounts of lead in the soil and the biodiversity of the insects that I collect. I am also going to be sampling some of the insects themselves to see if there is any biological uptake of lead,” she said.


Photo: Elizabeth Miller, left, is researching soil invertebrates under the direction of Dr. Cynthia Walter.

Photo: Evelyn and Batista Madonia, Sr. Environmental Center at Saint Vincent College 




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