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May / June 2003

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UMaine Today Magazine

Student Focus

Enriching experiments

Rachael Keats
Photo courtesy of
Hilary Neckles, USGS

Gene Connolly

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Surrounded by wetlands and wooded hills, a scenic estuary near Bar Harbor, Maine, seems like one of the last places to study water pollution. But University of Maine graduate student Rachel Keats has been using Northeast Creek estuary on the northeast side of Mt. Desert Island to study changes in aquatic food webs when nutrient levels rise as a result of runoff.

Keats worked in a cooperative project with Laurie Osher, assistant professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Environmental Sciences, and Hilary Neckles at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The integrated ecosystem project led by USGS is one of the few in Maine's coastal waters exploring the potential for such changes.

"The goal was to find out at what level of nitrogen in the water there was a response in the ecosystem," says Keats of her experiments that began in 2001. The Niskayuna, N.Y., native received her master's degree in ecology last year, and will begin graduate work this fall in the UMaine Department of Spatial Information Science and Engineering.

In her research, Keats collected samples of invertebrates, sediment and plant materials from experimental enclosures established and maintained by USGS, as well as from unenclosed control locations. Each enclosure, about the size of a washing machine, had clear plastic sides and an open top and bottom. Nitrogen fertilizer was added to the enclosures at three different constant rates to simulate nutrient enrichment at three different levels. To provide a control, researchers did not add nitrogen to some of the enclosures.

Keats estimated the numbers and types of invertebrates, and sent materials to a laboratory for stable isotope analysis. Some stable isotopes can indicate changes in ecological processes.

"At the highest levels of loading, there was a shift in the insect community," says Keats. "There was an increase in the number of worms. Damselfly larvae and midges that graze on algae were pretty much wiped out. Generally, the community shifted from a diverse group of insects that graze and specialize in what they eat to a deposit-feeding community insects that will eat anything."

The changes were most significant at levels of nutrient enrichment that are higher than what is typically seen in developing watersheds, Keats adds. In that sense, they represent an extreme scenario of actual ecosystem change in response to development.

Keats also documented similar but less severe changes at lower levels of enrichment.

Securing the future

Gene Connolly, a University of Maine senior in computer science from South Berwick, Maine, never thought he'd worry about let alone work on issues related to homeland security.

"The subject never crossed my mind while I was growing up. If anyone had asked, I guess I would have thought that it was something that people in other countries worried about," he says.

For his honors research project, Connolly is working with UMaine Fulbright Visiting Professor Anatoly Sachenko, director of the Institute of Computer Information Technologies at the Ternopil Academy of National Economy in the Ukraine. They are exploring ways to link Internet addresses with geographic locations and to analyze electronic information for its potential relevance to terrorism.

In addition to Sachenko, Connolly's advisors include computer science professors George Markowsky and Tom Wheeler.

Connolly came to UMaine for academic and financial reasons and the UMaine swim team. He was the first student at Marshwood High School to win a state swimming medal (500-yard freestyle). At UMaine, Connolly has competed for four years and is team captain.

Complementing his university experience, Connolly worked two summers for EigenSoft Inc., a business software developer located in Portsmouth, N.H.


UMaine Today Magazine
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