Next Generation: Zach Gotthardt

June 4, 2019

Next Generation: Zach Gotthardt

Advisor: Lora Harris, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory

What is the focus of your research?
I’m studying the biogeochemistry of a polluted estuary and how it responds to aeration, the addition of oxygen to the system. My research focuses on a small tidal sub-estuary downstream of Baltimore called Rock Creek, a system that is high in nutrients. High nutrients in a system can cause a chain reaction of biological processes which result in a lack of oxygen in the system which can cause fish kills and other ecological issues.  In the 1980s an aeration system consisting of underwater pipes connected to a compressor on land that pumps air into the bottom of the estuary was installed in Rock Creek in an effort to mitigate water quality issues. Fast forward to today, I have the opportunity of working with the Anne Arundel county government conducting experiments to see how biological processes of the system, like photosynthesis, change in response to the engineered aeration.

How will it make a difference?
My research will help inform future management decisions. It’s a unique opportunity to be able to study the effects of oxygen in a eutrophic system, a situation that would not normally exist in nature otherwise. Being able to conduct these studies will help inform future restoration projects on the potential benefits of adding oxygen to a system lacking it, to create a healthier waterway. It also provides insights on engineered aeration.

Why did you choose to study with your mentor at UMCES?
When I contacted my advisor, Lora Harris, and found out about the Rock Creek project, I was really interested in the study area. Lora is a systems ecologist, and coming up through undergrad, that’s a field I was interested in studying, so it made sense to work with someone who had similar interest in terms of ecology. When I heard she had a grant to work on this project from Maryland Sea Grant, I jumped on the opportunity. It also helps that she is a fantastic advisor. I couldn’t ask for anyone better.

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
I had the opportunity to give an oral presentation at the Atlantic Estuarine Research Society (AERS) conference on some of the preliminary findings of my research. One of the aspects of the experience that really stood out to me was people’s curiosity and interest in my research. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and pride that I was contributing to the pool of knowledge and findings on this topic.

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
I’d say listen to scientists and their recommendations. Being a part of the scientific community has been really eye opening because now I see how driven scientists are to make a difference. They really care and know what they are talking about.

Do you have advice for kids in the next generation who are interested in STEM fields?
Try to find what makes you happiest. This was some advice given to me, and I’ve found that an important part about being a scientist is being passionate and finding joy in what you’re doing. Everybody I’ve ever met really likes their job, and that goes a long way in making an impact in your community and in the world.

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?
In addition to being a Maryland Sea Grant Fellow, I received the Ruth Mathes Scholarship Award in 2017 from the Cove Point Natural Heritage Trust. The money I received allowed me to collect more data on the biological processes occurring in Rock Creek by creating a new experimental design and implementing it. I was able to use a method that gave us more precise measurements and we ended up seeing some interesting results that we would have otherwise missed without the award.

What are your future plans?
I successfully defended my thesis on May 21. I’m interested in ending up in a management field helping informing decision makers, whether as a contractor or within the federal government. I’m also considering going back to school to get a Ph.D. in a couple years, but that is to be determined.