FROSTBURG, MD (September 10, 2019) –Garrett County resident Scott McKinstry recently completed an undergraduate internship at the Appalachian Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) under the mentorship of UMCES Ph.D. student Joel Bostic.
McKinstry, a junior in Frostburg State University’s (FSU) Wildlife and Fisheries Biology program, spent the summer working with Bostic in two watersheds in Baltimore County and in the laboratory, trying to identify the source of nitrate found at the sites following major storm events.
Nitrate, a chemical compound consisting of nitrogen and oxygen, can enter streams and rivers in storm water from different sources, such as fertilizer from agricultural lands or as nitrate in rainfall, which is a component of acid rain. With the streams and rivers, it then flows into larger bodies of water, such as the Chesapeake Bay, where it can contribute to algal blooms. These blooms are of concern because they can lower oxygen levels in the water, harming marine life.
Understanding the source of the nitrate in the streams and rivers can help assess and better inform the current best management practices used to help reduce concentrations and mitigate future algal blooms.
Over the summer, Bostic and McKinstry visited research sites at Gwynns Falls and Gunpowder Falls in Baltimore County during large storms. At the sites, they used auto samplers to collect water samples throughout a storm, and then they brought the collected samples back to the laboratory for analysis.
“Every sample collected in the field corresponds to hours of lab work,” said Bostic.
Back in the laboratory, Bostic taught McKinstry how to filter samples to remove sediment and debris and how to use the “Denitrifier Method,” a process that uses bacteria to convert dissolved nitrate into nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, which can be analyzed to determine the nitrate’s source. The resulting nitrous oxide samples then underwent isotopic analysis in the Appalachian Laboratory’s Central Appalachians Stable Isotope Facility (CASIF) to help determine the source of the nitrate in the original water samples.
“I was completely new to all of this,” said McKinstry. “This internship was my first time working in a laboratory or on a formal research project.”
According to Bostic, McKinstry learned laboratory safety protocols and experimental procedures quickly. He also learned how to define and tackle a manageable research question. For his project, McKinstry chose to examine if the size of a storm correlates with the concentration of both total nitrate and nitrate from the atmosphere in the samples. He found that total nitrate concentrations decreased overall, but nitrate from the atmosphere has a more complicated relationship, often increasing during the earlier portion of a storm. Isotopic measurements are ongoing and additional data will help to provide a clearer conclusion to McKinstry’s research question. His findings were presented at a special seminar for faculty and students at the Appalachian Laboratory in August, and McKinstry hopes to present additional results at a statewide water monitoring conference in December. View his presentation slides here.
While at the Appalachian Laboratory, McKinstry also participated in other learning opportunities such as bird walks with ornithology students, journal article discussion groups, dissertation defenses, and the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture conference, which was held at the Lab in August.
He advises other undergraduate students to keep an open mind on internships and other similar experiences.
“Be ambitious and take advantage of opportunities. I hadn’t really considered doing research before I learned about this internship. Take a chance and try something outside your comfort zone. You’ll grow and learn so much,” he advises.
Bostic, who one day hopes to teach at an undergraduate-focused institution, offers similar advice.
“UMCES is unique in that we don’t have an undergraduate student body, so graduate students don’t typically have the opportunity to serve as teaching assistants or otherwise work with undergraduates. I would encourage all graduate students, but especially those who plan to pursue a career in a higher education setting with undergraduates, to pursue opportunities to mentor undergraduate students,” he said.
McKinstry, who completed courses at Garrett College before transferring to FSU, is still considering his long-term goals once he completes his undergraduate degree, but he admits graduate school may now be an option.
“After this experience, I’m now thinking seriously about pursuing at least a master’s degree in my field,” he said.
“This is a win-win opportunity for training and inspiring the next generation of scientists here in rural Appalachia,” says Bostic’s advisor, Dr. David Nelson, an ecologist at the Lab. “The undergraduate student receives experience conducting real-world scientific research, and the graduate student receives invaluable experience as a mentor and assistance with conducting research.
The Appalachian Laboratory is committed to providing internship opportunities for undergraduate students, especially for local students and those traditionally underrepresented in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Learn more about undergraduate internships at the Appalachian Laboratory at www.umces.edu/al/internships.