Next Generation: Joel Bostic

March 7, 2017
Appalachian Laboratory Graduate Student Joel Bostic is studying sources of nitrate pollution.

A graduate student at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Joel Bostic, who previously earned an UMCES presidential fellowship, said earning the recognition from the NSF “felt amazing.” This three-year fellowship is open to graduate students in NSF-supported fields, such as science, technology, engineering, and math. Bostic’s research will be related to nitrogen dynamics and export in watersheds, following the line of his current studies.

Hometown: Greenville, North Carolina
Advisors: Dave Nelson and Keith Eshleman, Appalachian Laboratory

What are you researching?: I am interested in the sources of nitrate pollution coming into the Chesapeake Bay from upland watersheds. My advisors and I are measuring how much of the nitrate transported in streams, and eventually to the bay, comes from atmospheric deposition (in the rain) versus terrestrial sources (fertilizer and microbial sources).We also are interested to see if different type of land-uses—such as urban, agricultural, and forested land—have an impact on the proportion of atmospheric versus terrestrial nitrate in stream samples.

Nitrate deposited on the forest surface is likely to infiltrate into the soil and be used by a tree or micro-organism before it can be transported to and exported by a stream and contribute to downstream pollution. In a very urban system, however, it’s more likely that nitrate could move through a watershed without being used because there are more impervious surfaces that don't allow the same infiltration. Watersheds with lots of agriculture typically export the most total nitrate due to the abundant fertilizer—but the proportion of this total nitrate from atmospheric sources is unknown.

Why does it makes a difference? Nitrate pollution contributes harmful algal blooms and oxygen minimum zones and has been an ongoing issue for the Chesapeake Bay for a long time. Previous research in forested land has shown that about 10% or less of stream nitrate is from atmospheric sources—meaning forests are very good at absorbing the extra nitrate added during rain/snow events. Less is known about the percentage of atmospheric nitrate in streams of agricultural and urban systems. If we can better understand the sources (atmospheric vs. terrestrial) of nitrate entering the Bay from different watersheds, it can help with management policies.

As part of the project we collect stream samples two times per month at four streams in western Maryland... I’ve found during the quiet time while I’m hiking through the woods I come up with new ideas and thoughts regarding possible hypotheses to test with our project.

How did you get interested in environmental science? I was not very interested in science growing up, but always loved to be outside. Whether it was surfing, whitewater kayaking, raft guiding, or hiking in the mountains, I was happiest immersed in nature. I pursued a degree in parks and recreation management as an undergraduate in an attempt to translate my love of the outdoors into a career. I realized, however, I knew very little about the environments in which I spent so much time.

I decided to major in earth science education. For a senior thesis research project during my final year as an undergraduate, I investigated the effects of groins (erosion control structures) on an oceanfront salt marsh on Hunting Island, South Carolina. The results of this project showed the groins were actually increasing the erosion of the salt marsh – the opposite intended effect.

After a taste of research, I wanted more.

Why choose the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science? After attending a large research university for a master’s degree, the smaller student and faculty population of Appalachian Laboratory was enticing. The smaller population makes for a great sense of community amongst the graduate students and there is immediate access to faculty members for questions or potential collaborations. Despite its size, the Appalachian Laboratory still maintains state-of-the-art facilities, including the capability for unique stable isotope analysis that my project requires.

Share an experience that stands out most about your time with UMCES. I have meetings every other week with my advisors, Dave Nelson and Keith Eshleman, to catch up on project status and discuss a relevant journal article. Our discussions have been a highlight. They have vastly different backgrounds and bring different perspectives. We almost always run out of time because we get really into the discussion.

As part of the project we collect stream samples two times per month at four streams in western Maryland. One of the sites requires about one-mile hikes each way to the sampling location. I’ve found during the quiet time while I’m hiking through the woods I come up with new ideas and thoughts regarding possible hypotheses to test with our project.

What do you like to do in your free time? I enjoy hanging out with my family: My wife and I have two sons—a 2-year-old and a newborn—so things are always exciting in our household!

What are your future plans? My future plans are to teach at a university. I enjoyed my experience at a smaller undergraduate school (Western Carolina University) and would like to become a professor at a similarly sized school.

Joel Bostic wrote about education outreach for the Maryland Sea Grant fellowship blog.