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UMaine Today Magazine


Invasion of the forest snatcher

Japanese Barberry
Photo courtesy of William Livingston

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After more than a century of clearing for agriculture, browsing by deer and die-offs related to disease, the forests on Monhegan Island, Maine, appear to be regenerating with a healthy mix of hardwoods and softwoods.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that an invasive non-native plant known as Japanese barberry now threatens the forests. It already infests almost 40 percent of the island's 360 acres of forest, forming an impenetrable thicket in some areas that can exclude other vegetation, according to two University of Maine scientists.

"This is the first time in Maine that I've seen a forest dominated by barberry. We didn't expect the barberry to be such a problem," says Bill Livingston, a professor in the UMaine Department of Forest Ecosystem Science who co-authored the study with master's student Rick Dyer of Amherst, Mass.

Monhegan, nine miles off the mid-coast, is home to a year-round community of 75, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and a summer season population.

The study by Dyer and Livingston is the first thorough quantitative survey of the island's forests. It was done at the request of the Monhegan Island Association to provide an informed view about the future forest.

Future forest health was in doubt because a parasitic plant dwarf mistletoe has killed most of the white spruce in the last 20 years. The vulnerable white spruce stands were only on abandoned fields, most of which appeared in the early 1900s.

Today, native red spruce is regenerating in the old stands, along with maple, mountain ash and other hardwoods. Red spruce is much more tolerant of the parasitic plant and thrives in the continuously forested areas. Now barberry is the new threat to the recovery and health of the island's forests.

Calculating credits

As engineers and scientists look for ways to increase fuel efficiency in cars and trucks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded a more than $177,000 grant to the University of Maine for research on a business-oriented strategy to achieve fuel savings. Resource economist Jonathan Rubin, interim director of UMaine's Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy, will lead the effort to study the benefits of a tradable fuel economy credit system.

Rubin will work with David Greene and Paul Leiby of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The research will include students at UMaine and the University of Tennessee, which administers Oak Ridge.

A fuel economy credit system would provide an incentive for manufacturers to increase fuel efficiency, says Rubin, while still meeting consumer preferences. In a recent review of national fuel efficiency programs, a National Research Council committee suggested that such a system could produce greater fuel savings than increasing the CAFE (corporate average fuel efficiency) standards alone.

Vehicle manufacturers earn fuel economy credits when the average mileage of their fleets exceeds the federal standard. Those credits can be used to offset any penalties levied against the manufacturers when average mileage is below standard. The credits cannot currently be traded.

Researchers will study several types of tradable fuel economy credit systems, and will calculate the fuel efficiency benefits that result from rule changes.

Average fuel economy of new U.S. light-duty vehicles is 24.5 miles per gallon, a significant drop from its 1989 peak of 25.6 miles per gallon. It's estimated that light-duty vehicles emitted 16 percent more greenhouse gases in 1999 than in 1990.

Living below the line

Of the more than 11 percent of Maine residents living below the federal poverty threshold, almost half are alone in single-person households, according to a study conducted by the Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy at the University of Maine.

In six of the state's 16 counties, half of the people living alone and below the poverty level are age 65 and older. In all but four counties, more than 60 percent of households below poverty have one or more members working full- or part-time jobs.

"Poverty rates, income, employment, and the rate of receipt of benefits and services vary regionally within Maine. Understanding these regional variations and the specific demographics of poverty, such as age and education, should be useful to policymakers and service providers," according to Ann Acheson, a research associate in the Margaret Chase Smith Center and author of Poverty in Maine 2003.

Poverty in Maine 2003, a report on the status of Maine's county and local poverty, was commissioned by the Maine Community Action Association (MCAA). Acheson used data from the state Department of Human Services' food stamp and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs; the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program administered by the Maine State Housing Authority; Department of Labor unemployment data; and 2000 Census information.

Among the study's other findings:

Three counties Aroostook, Piscataquis and Washington had median household incomes more than 20 percent below the statewide household median income of $37,240.

The aging of the population and out-migration by younger families is contributing to higher poverty rates in several counties.

Statewide in fiscal 200102, 8.5 percent of the total population received TANF or food stamps.

Higher education often is cited as one of the most important population characteristics affecting economic well-being. In Maine, almost 70 percent of the population reports lacking a college degree, compared with 61 percent in the other New England states.

Translating science

This spring, University of Maine student teachers will learn science from researchers at the world's largest mammalian genetic research facility. The lessons will then be incorporated into the students' classroom teaching.

Students in UMaine's Master of Science in Teaching (MST) Program will benefit from a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit biomedical research institute in Bar Harbor, Maine. The almost $540,000 grant will support research internships for MST students.

Susan McKay, chair of the university's Department of Physics and Astronomy, and director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education Research, will oversee the UMaine portion of the program in which students will work with Jackson Lab scientists in their laboratories. Subsequently, MST program faculty members will work with students to help them translate their experiences for the classroom. Jackson Lab was one of 19 grant recipients out of an eligible pool of 300 institutions across the country.

Chemistry moves in

Last month, University of Maine faculty and students moved into newly renovated laboratories, offices and seminar classrooms in Aubert Hall.

The Department of Chemistry is the principal occupant of Aubert Hall. The Native American Studies Program and the School of Marine Sciences also occupy lab and office space there.

The renovations include new chemistry labs equipped with state-of-the-art ventilation hoods and bench top work spaces. Computational chemistry research and instructional spaces are in the center of the building, while facilities that handle chemicals are at both ends.

Much of the department's research and instructional instrumentation, such as the Fourier transform-ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer, or FT-ICR, will be housed in the upgraded laboratories. Faculty and students conduct research in areas that include chemical and biological sensors, biological and medicinal chemistry, wood and paper chemistry, environmental chemistry, and surface chemistry.

Renovations completed to date are the first phase of an estimated $21 million total project. The Maine legislature and the University of Maine System funded $9 million and $3 million, respectively.

Named in honor of Alfred Bellamy Aubert, professor of chemistry from 18741909, the hall was built in 1914 to house the departments of chemistry and chemical engineering.

Carbon in the sun

While the debate over global climate change focuses on carbon dioxide in the air, scientists have long known that atmospheric concentrations of carbon depend on processes in soils, forests, rivers and the oceans. To understand one such process, University of Maine geochemist Larry Mayer has turned to North America's longest river.

The Mississippi drains about 40 percent of the continental United States and carries to the Gulf of Mexico enormous quantities of carbon much of it as small particles of organic matter. Significantly, much of that carbon disappears after delivery to sediments in the Gulf.

"Take the mighty Mississippi or other muddy rivers, follow the particulate organic matter and go look for it on the continental shelf or in the estuaries, and about two-thirds of it is gone," he says. "We know it happens in the Mississippi, the Amazon, the Ganges and others. A lot of carbon is disappearing, and no one quite knows how."

With a $294,000 National Science Foundation grant, Mayer is studying several hypotheses involving sunlight, microorganisms and iron oxide. One he calls the sunburn hypothesis. In his lab at UMaine's Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine, Mississippi River sediments were put under sunlamps.

"Our experimental setup is basically a suntan parlor. After several days of exposure, we measure the organic matter concentration in the mud and, lo and behold, we see that about two-thirds of it is gone," says Mayer. "It seems to be a sunburn reaction in that it peels the organic matter off the clay mineral surfaces with which it's associated."

Mayer is now studying river processes such as light penetration into the water column, and the mixing and distribution of river sediments in near-shore areas. The results of his work should help fill an important gap in scientists' understanding of the global carbon cycle and may contribute to greenhouse gas reduction strategies.

Valuing diverse crop traits over yield alone

New crops stand a better chance of helping to fill the world's breadbaskets if plant breeders take farmers' needs into account early in the crop development process, according to a new research report that is one of the first to demonstrate farmers' preferences using a quantitative approach.

The findings by University of Maine agricultural economist Timothy Dalton could help agricultural research organizations work with farmers in developing countries to increase food production.

In August, his paper on the economic values West African farmers place on rice traits won a second-place award at the 25th International Conference of Agricultural Economists. It will be published in the journal Agricultural Economics in 2004.

Asian rice, first brought to Africa in the 1600s, gradually became a primary staple over indigenous, low-yielding African rice in some areas. Since the 1950s, rice breeders have developed new varieties, but they are not well accepted.

To find out what farmers value in their rice varieties, Dalton conducted a two-year project beginning in 1997 in Ivory Coast with Monty Jones, an internationally respected rice breeder. At the time, both Dalton and Jones worked for the West Africa Rice Development Association.

Less than 11 percent of the cropland in the West African rice belt is planted with high-yielding rice varieties, says Dalton. He found that farmers value factors such as plant height, days to maturity and processing characteristics more than how much a plant yields. Dalton was able to derive economic values of different crop traits, which can then be used by breeders to move directly toward useful technologies.

Artist to artist

A series of art mentoring workshops designed to link teen and senior artists was made possible by a $3,500 Excellence in Education grant from MBNA.

The grant proposal was written by University of Maine social work graduate students Ezra Kreamer and Robbie Connor, and faculty member Nancy Webster, to benefit Senior College, a nonprofit organization affiliated with UMaine's Hutchinson Center in Belfast, Maine.

During a two-week period earlier this fall, six artists from the community, all 50 years of age and older, conducted small workshops for the high school artists in the Belfast area. The workshops followed a community-based summer arts festival, also created to help bridge generation gaps.

"Through better understanding of the artists' life experiences, we began to dispel myths and fears," says Kreamer.

Last semester, Kreamer and Connor had their field placements with Senior College. Their work focused on the college's membership in an effort to ensure that it was meeting the educational needs of as many seniors as possible in the community. The key was in dialogue. The graduate students met with Senior College leaders to discuss the logistics of increasing enrollment and being inclusive, and they went into the community to talk to seniors to get their perspectives on ageism and the services they need.

Initiative links sports, standards, stronger schools

Federal Seed money will shape a coaching education initiative at the University of Maine that coincides with the state's learning standards.

Former Maine Education Commissioner J. Duke Albanese is leading the effort to create research-based curriculum development and community awareness to improve the training of coaches, and to identify and implement best practices for school sports.

"Coaching Maine Youth to Success" is designed to improve the sports experience as a means of heightening the aspirations and academic performance of student athletes, and encouraging more students to participate in and benefit from sports.

It is co-directed by College of Education and Human Development Dean Robert Cobb and funded by a two-year, $397,400 U.S. Department of Education grant.

The overall goal is to be a catalyst, leader and resource for schools and communities in developing quality interscholastic sports programs that complement high academic standards. The initiative builds on the work of the college's Maine Center for Coaching Education.

Responsible for research

Michael Eckardt, a medical psychologist with extensive experience conducting research and managing research programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is the new vice president for research at the University of Maine.

In 1976, Eckardt began working for NIH's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). He was an active researcher for more than 20 years, and played a significant role in the development of federal guidelines related to alcohol and health. Eckardt also was on the University of Oregon Medical School adjunct faculty.

When he retired earlier this year, Eckardt led NIAAA's Planning and Evaluation Branch. UMaine's vice president for research is responsible for: developing and executing strategies related to the institution's research mission; representing university interests to government, industry and other constituencies; and overseeing policies related to research, technology transfer and economic development.


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