Katherine Markstein ’18 and Corey Palmer ’18 stood side by side in the College’s greenhouse, carefully taking measurements, transcribing their notes, and conferring with one another, as they had so many other times. In many ways this space had become a second home to them. It was in the greenhouse, surrounded by soil and watering cans, that they had spent hundreds of hours getting their hands dirty and putting their understanding of biology, geology and chemistry to work on a project that is not just close to their hearts, but which also addresses one of the most critical issues facing humanity today – preservation of the environment. The young researchers hope that what they uncovered will one day help other scientists better predict changes to the earth’s delicate ecosystem.
Markstein is a biology major from Binghamton, N.Y. Palmer is an environmental science systems major from Marcellus, N.Y. Their collaboration began in the fall of 2016 when they discovered they’d been asking themselves many of the same questions about the ecology of the planet. Of particular concern to them was the rising level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. Scientists estimate that carbon dioxide emissions have increased by about 50 percent since the beginning of the industrial era, and by about 33 percent since 1970. The heat-trapping gas has been linked to drought, melting sea ice and permafrost, rising sea levels, and extinction of plant and animal life around the world. For Markstein and Palmer, better understanding how carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere is not just an ecological imperative, but a social one.
“Both Corey and I have long been interested in environmental science and climate change,” Markstein said. “It’s urgent that we understand as much as possible about the changing planet, and thus climate, environmental and ecological research are more important now than ever.”
The students knew that there was a multitude of projects they could pursue. With the guidance of Professor of Environmental Science Systems Larry Tanner, Ph.D., they ultimately decided to focus their study on the roles moisture and temperature play in the decomposition of organic matter in soil. Understanding these variables is critical in predicting the future health of the planet because as soil organic matter decomposes it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, it had not yet been widely investigated.
Over the course of their project, Markstein and Palmer blended theory and practice, refined their lab techniques, and gained confidence in interpreting results. But equally as important, they learned how to become more independent and to overcome the obstacles that inevitably arise while conducting research. Ultimately their work – which was supported by Le Moyne’s McDevitt Center and Student Research Committee – paid off. The young researchers discovered something they hadn’t encountered in the scientific literature they read before beginning their work: The rate of decomposition of organic matter in soil increases as temperature and moisture do, and moisture plays a more significant role in decomposition rate than expected. Their findings could be critical to ensuring the accuracy of future climate models – computer simulations that scientists use to understand the causes of environmental change, locally and globally, using both scientific theories and direct observations.
“It is tremendously rewarding to see these students own this project as they grow as scientists,” Tanner said. “Corey and Katie are particularly motivated in this project because they understand that it is real science, and that it is important for the future of the planet they will inherit.”
Following commencement, both Markstein and Palmer plan to attend graduate school and pursue careers in environmental studies. Thanks to their undergraduate research, they have already had a preview of what that will be like. In addition, they shared the results of their work both off campus at Loyola University, Chicago and at meetings of the Geological Society of America in Seattle, Wash., and Burlington, Vt., and on campus as part of Scholars Day and the Natural Science Seminar Series. Their greatest hope, they said, is that it will not end with them.
“Doing this research really helped me learn a lot about myself,” Palmer said. “I figured out what I want to do, what I enjoy, and I gained a lot from the experience. Right now, I hope that people will be able to build upon this work and grow it even further.”
Center for the Study of Environmental Change,
Biology at Le Moyne,
Chemistry at Le Moyne