October 21, 2020
Appalachian Laboratory welcomes new Ph.D. students
The Appalachian Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) is pleased to welcome two new Ph.D. students this academic year. Jonathan Johnson has joined the laboratory of Dr. David Nelson, and Luke DeGroote has joined Dr. Emily Cohen’s laboratory. Both are enrolled in the Marine-Estuarine Environmental Sciences (MEES) Graduate Program of the University System of Maryland.
Jonathan Johnson, a U.S. Air Force veteran, comes to the Appalachian Laboratory most recently from West Virginia University (WVU), where he majored in geology. Johnson, who also spent time as a Maine lobsterman, originally chose geography as his intended major, but due to an advising mistake, wound up in a geology course his first semester.
Of the time he spent in the geology course Johnson said, “I loved it. Every lecture I learned more interesting things and became enthralled with the geological sciences.”
Johnson, the first in his family to attend college, has since found a way of combining his initial interest in geography with his new love of geological sciences by pursuing a research interest in forensic palynology, a field that uses pollen traces to place people in certain geographical locations. During his junior year at WVU Johnson completed an internship with the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) where he sampled dirt for pollen and then created vegetation maps of the areas sampled.
“These maps would allow investigators not only to tell if a person had visited that area but also the direction he or she had walked across the landscape based on the pollen found on the person,” he said.
While at the Appalachian Laboratory, Johnson will work with Nelson to collect and analyze fossil pollen in sediment cores from the Great Lakes region to understand why populations of mesic tree species (including several that occur in western Maryland, such as maple, hemlock, and beech) abruptly and repeatedly declined during the past several thousand years. The results of the project will inform efforts to understand the vulnerability of modern forests to environmental changes.
“We’ve observed big changes in these forests through time, but we don’t know why they occurred. Were they due to drought or fire? If so, our eastern forests may be more sensitive to change than we currently think,” said Nelson.
Nelson further added, “There aren't many military veterans and first-generation students in the environmental sciences, so I'm excited to work with Jonathan to help him pursue his dream of becoming a research scientist with the USGS.”
Luke DeGroote currently serves as the Avian Research Coordinator for the Powdermill Nature Reserve, the environmental research station of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where he plans to remain while completing graduate studies part-time.
DeGroote’s interest in environmental science goes back to childhood when he spent a lot of time exploring nature with his father, a retired professor of plant biology, and his mother, a horticulturist.
“Science is about curiosity and finding answers. I’ve always found it a lot of fun,” said DeGroote.
As an undergraduate studying wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin, DeGroote took an ornithology course and found he enjoyed identifying birds and studying their behavior. Following some short-term positions in wildlife management, and after earning a master’s degree at Ohio State University, he found himself at Powdermill, where he hopes to remain for a longtime to come.
“I’m really happy at Powdermill, and I look forward to doing some great research there. Pursuing a Ph.D. through UMCES at the Appalachian Laboratory will not only help me further develop my research skills but will assist me in building collaborative networks to support future research,” he said.
During his time with Cohen’s Laboratory, DeGroote will be analyzing data collected through a network of radio receiving stations throughout the northeastern United States in an attempt to better understand bird migration. Given that approximately 25% of birds have been lost over the last forty years, developing a better understanding of this important aspect of a bird’s life span could have lasting implications for bird conservation.
“We are very excited to have Luke join our Lab. He is uniquely positioned with this project to address questions that will help us understand how and why migration is changing and migratory species are declining and to develop tools to focus conservation and management efforts for migratory species on the stopover and airspace habitats birds use during migration,” said Cohen.
UMCES students like Johnson and DeGroote ordinarily attend courses in-person through video networked classrooms at home institutions throughout the system. Due to COVID-19, however, students will be completing course work fully online this semester. Additionally, because a defining feature of the graduate program at UMCES is the opportunity to engage in research under the direct one-on-one supervision of a faculty advisor, UMCES faculty and administrators have worked throughout the summer to identify and implement necessary COVID-19 safety protocols in support of these activities. For more information on how UMCES is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit www.umces.edu/coronavirus.
To learn more about graduate education opportunities at UMCES, visit www.umces.edu/graduate-program. Additional information on the research activities of Dr. David Nelson and Dr. Emily Cohen can be found at www.umces.edu/david-nelson and www.umces.edu/emily-cohen, respectively.