HomeCollege of Arts and SciencesStudents Dig into Sediment Project to Help Restore Natural Habitats

Students Dig into Sediment Project to Help Restore Natural Habitats

A group of Southern students are gearing up to get their hands dirty for science, in a collaboration with Save the Sound (STS) and the Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies (WCCMS). The research program aims to develop a more efficient screening process for sediment trapped behind dams in Connecticut that are targeted for removal.

Dr. Vincent Breslin, director of the Werth Center and a professor of environmental studies and marine studies, said the project aligns with a movement to restore the natural habitat and migration of fish and other organisms, by removing dams that have no useful service. To do that, the state requires testing of the sediment behind the dams.

“Connecticut has a very rich industrial history,” Breslin said. “Sewage waste waters over time can introduce contaminants that get scavenged and stored by the sediment behind those dams.”

Consequently, the sediment can end up with heavy metals or organic contaminants, such as PCBs, which compound the challenge of restoring the natural habitats. That makes restoration expensive, Breslin said.

“The focus is on fewer problematic contaminants in the sediment, with a goal of creating a more efficient sediment assessment process, which at the same time would lower costs of the assessment of these dams for remediation or removals,” he said.

Another key goal of the program is engaging undergraduate and graduate students in faculty-mentored research. An $82,250 grant from the Werth Family Foundation is making the project reality.

Student researchers will collect samples in the field. Then, they’ll help design and conduct analytical protocols to characterize the sediment quality. They’ll generate reports from the data collection for STS and other research initiatives.

“When they do the sampling, they’ll have ownership of the project. Even though it may be working in a clean lab environment to do the analytics, they’re going to get muddy,” Breslin said.

That sounds good to Jam Hayton, a senior in Environmental Systems and Sustainability, with a focus on coastal marine systems. Hayton is one of the students selected to take part in the program. He learned about the project at a recent Save the Sound seminar at the Werth Center.

STS’s Paul Woodworth and Laura Wildman co-presented the seminar. Hayton was one of 50 students in attendance impressed by the potential effect of the program. The powerful images in the duo’s PowerPoint presentation made an impact.

Save the Sound’s Laura Wildman and Paul Woodworth present at the recent Werth Center seminar.

“It’s harder to understand without visuals,” he said. “All the waterways are plugged with dams.”

Once he saw the potential for the project, and how it aligned with his academic goals, Hayton was in. Students selected for the program will earn a stipend this summer to continue working on the project. For Hayton, the program will also help him get his last credit for graduation and give him a ready-made topic for a graduate thesis or independent study.

“I’m thinking about grad school and my research topic. I’m applying for funding from whatever I can find to help pay for grad school. Something clicked,” he said.

Students will gain knowledge from Save the Sound’s expertise on how to remove sediment, while the Werth Center’s infrastructure and faculty expertise will help determine the physical and chemical properties of sediment.

Breslin said the team has identified three dams for the work. Faculty and students will visit the dam sites, conduct reconnaissance, and devise a game plan for the work. They plan to collect samples in May and conduct the characterization of the sediment and research over the summer. Besides the summer stipend, funding from the grant will cover student activities in presenting their results at meetings and academic conferences. Students also will generate academic papers for publication.

“The results will matter. If we do good work, we can help more dams get removed more quickly; we can restore habitats and fish migrations and clean up contaminated areas,” Hayton said.

Habitat restoration will have a powerful impact, Breslin said. The work would potentially help recover miles of streams for migratory fish and increase river biodiversity, restoring a natural flow of sediments to coastal areas.

“One of the nice aspects is we’re involving faculty and students from the Chemistry department, Earth Sciences, Biology and Environment, Geography and Marine Sciences,” Breslin said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to work with faculty and professional engineers from STS.”

The possibilities of positive impact are many, Breslin said, from influencing future legislation to proposing their work as a model to expand the project to conduct sediment screening behind more dams in Connecticut.

Breslin said the program has selected a handful of students but there is room for more. If you’re interested in participating, contact Breslin at: breslinv1@southernct.edu.


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