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A Semester in the Adirondacks
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute undergraduate biology student Nicole Nolan recently looked into the murky water of a fish tank here, checking on hundreds of zebra mussel larvae that she studied in the laboratories of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute.
A Semester in the Adirondacks
Nolan was part of the first class of students to spend an entire “Semester of Study” at the Institute, a Rensselaer research and education facility located on the western shores of Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.

Her study of the infamous invasive species was part of a full semester of research and courses that included catching and measuring fish in some of the most inaccessible lakes in the Adirondacks, releasing young pheasants to the wild, and doing real work in the lab to provide researchers at the Institute with new information on how to control damaging invasives such as zebra mussels.

“The semester of study at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute gives our students the opportunity to perform research that they often wouldn’t get the opportunity to accomplish in a traditional classroom setting and all right on the banks of one of the most beautiful lakes,” said Institute Director and Professor of Biology Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer. “They are able to earn a full semester of credits while also contributing to the preservation and understanding of some of our most vital freshwater resources and ecosystems.”

The program, which will be offered each year during the fall semester at Rensselaer, is designed for a wide range of students interested in learning how to solve some of our most critical environmental issues, according to Nierzwicki-Bauer. Students in the traditional sciences as well as students studying engineering, the social sciences, management, and economics are all encouraged to participate.

As part of the program, students live in the Institute’s large Adirondack-style lodge throughout the semester. The lodge includes dorm rooms, a full commercial kitchen for student meals, a recreation room with pool table and TV, massive wood fireplaces, and a large porch overlooking Lake George. There are also classrooms for course work, teaching laboratories, and research laboratories.

The Adirondack lodge is adjacent to the main laboratory facilities of the center, where students perform their individual research projects using sophisticated technology that bridges the gap between traditional ecology research and modern bioinformatics and chemical analysis.

The program includes two formal Rensselaer courses in freshwater ecology and applied and environmental microbiology, a weekly seminar series with world-renowned experts on environmental topics ranging from underwater archeology to bacterial genomics, an individual research project, and an internship with one of more than a dozen local environmental organizations.

Nolan spent her internship with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) fisheries group. With the state biologists, she performed fish surveys to study the health of populations in area lakes, removed fish eggs for hatching at DEC facilities to ensure strong populations the coming fall, and learned how to sample and check streams for contamination.

“It was interesting to go out and be in the field,” she said. “If you want to go out and see the Adirondacks, it is a really good opportunity.”

Her personal research on zebra mussels also helped scientists at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute determine what types of materials the mussels prefer to grow on. Eradicating the mussels, which compete with native species and clog pipes and equipment, is an important component of research at the Institute.

Fellow biology undergraduate Megan Bramhall took her research project to the molecular level. Bramhall studied years of samples taken by researchers at the Institute to understand how changes in pH due to acid rain affect the microbial populations in Adirondack lakes. She extracted DNA from the organisms in water samples to determine the biodiversity and community structure these microscopic organisms in each of the lakes at various times in their recent history.

“It is a lot of hands-on, in-the-lab work,” she said. “It is one-on-one with the scientist here and sometimes two-on-one, so I have learned a lot of things that I wouldn’t learn anywhere else.”

Bramhall also spent time out on the lake in boats owned by the Institute, collecting her own samples. “You have to be able to appreciate living next to a beautiful lake for months,” she said. Being out on the lake has a big impact on the way you view the importance of the research that you are doing, she said.

The Institute is now gearing up for its second Semester of Study for the fall of 2010.

The Darrin Fresh Water Institute is part of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. For more than 35 years, the scientists and students of the Institute have conducted research that has increased public awareness of environmental issues and answered important questions regarding the protection of our land, water, and air. The center provides Rensselaer students and faculty, as well as visiting scientists and elementary through high school students, the opportunity to study a variety of ecosystem and environmental problems using some of the most sophisticated technologies currently available.

Students seeking more information or to register for the Semester of Study for fall 2010 should contact Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer directly at nierzs@rpi.edu or (518) 644-3541.


Gabrielle DeMarco
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
(518) 276-6542

green@rensselaer is a series of articles, blog entries, podcasts, and videos highlighting issues and topics related to sustainability, energy, and the environment. The series will examine the research, student initiatives, administrative efforts, and individuals at Rensselaer who are striving in different ways toward the shared goal of reducing society’s impact on the environment.
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