Next Generation: Isabel C. Sánchez-Viruet

August 4, 2022

Advisor: Jeremy Testa, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory

What is the focus of your research?
I study the potential of floating wetlands to remove nitrogen from tidal waters. Floating wetlands are artificial platforms that create off-shore habitats that hold different aquatic plants, to remove nitrogen from tidal waters.

How will it make a difference? 
Floating wetlands are a certified best management practice (BMP) and are commonly used in retention ponds to contain stormwater, agricultural runoff, mining water, and wastewater. My research focuses on identifying the nitrogen removal pathways of the floating wetland and how efficient they are at removing nitrogen when deployed in a tidal system. The goal of this project is to understand how effective floating wetlands are at removing nitrogen and explore the possibility of utilizing them in highly urbanized areas where restoration of wetlands is not possible. 

Floating wetlands remove nitrogen, phosphorus, and solid particles in many different ways. Plants use nitrogen and phosphorus to grow, while the extensive root system that lives suspended in the water column reduces the speed of the water and allows more solid particles that cloud the water to settle at the bottom of the retention pond. Microbial communities growing in the constructed wetland platforms and roots also remove nitrogen, converting it from biologically available forms of nitrogen like nitrate to nitrogen gas. 

What influenced your career path in science?
Growing up in Puerto Rico and seeing how urban development affected natural resources motivated me to pursue a career in science. I wanted to protect the environment so my family could enjoy it.

Why did you choose to study with your mentor at UMCES? 
Everyone recommends Dr. Jeremy Testa. He has been a fantastic advisor since the beginning of my graduate studies. As a mentor, he treats me like a peer rather than just a student and goes above and beyond to make sure I understand. As a professor, he is always available to answer questions and re-visit the material taught. Dr. Testa’s approach to mentoring and teaching has helped me increase my confidence, creativity, and approach to problem-solving and scientific research. He makes working in the laboratory and field fun and enjoyable with his down-to-earth attitude—and dad jokes here and there. He is always willing to tweak and adjust the project to my strengths and potential. 

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
The support I get while working in the lab. 

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
I think the most important thing people can do for the environment is protect it and learn about it. We always take for granted water, food, and other natural resources. We always assume they are going to be there the next day, but that is not the case. If we all learned how and why natural resources are affected, we would also learn all the simple things we can do as an individual to preserve and protect these valuable resources for us and the next generations.  

Do you have advice for kids who are interested in STEM fields?
My advice for the next generation is to please don't give up on your interest in STEM when someone does not think you can be good at it. I remember being told I should not become a scientist because I was not doing well in my general chemistry class. That made me feel terrified of chemistry until I had the opportunity to work in a biogeochemistry laboratory. I am in love with the nitrogen cycle. I love being in the lab. I love playing with estuarine sediments. Do not give up and let other people bring you down. 

Have you received a scholarship, grant, travel award or gift from a donor? What did it allow you to do and why was that important? 
I received the Dean’s Fellowship when I first started, as well as the Solomon’s House Fellowship. These fellowships helped me make the transition to graduate school a lot easier. They also allowed me to have a higher availability of funds for my research. Additionally, I received a travel award from a donor that allowed me to present my research at the Coastal & Estuarine Research Federation back in 2019 in Mobile, Alabama. 

When do you anticipate earning your degree?
I anticipate finishing my degree in Spring 2024

What are your future plans?
I love resource management. I would love to have the opportunity to work with federal and local stakeholders and provide guidance on how to protect natural resources. If there is something I love about my research it is how there are many ways to apply it in the real world. Understanding how floating wetlands can improve water quality is something that is very gratifying because I know the science I am doing will help solve current issues and can immediately impact nearby communities.