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Grant Enables Pioneering Research of Vast River Systems in Great Plains and Asia

Published Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Barbara Hayford at Ike's Lake
Dr. Barbara Hayford leads a group of elementary students during a field trip to Ike's Lake in Wayne. In addition to her local research and service initiatives, Hayford frequently travels to Mongolia to study river systems and habitats.

WSC professor Barbara Hayford has received a National Science Foundation grant to study rivers with similar ecosystems in the United States and Mongolia.

Wayne State College Professor of Life Science Barbara Hayford is among 10 co-principal investigators awarded a five-year, $4.2-million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which will enable researchers from the U.S. and Mongolia to develop wide-ranging scientific knowledge of river systems spanning two continents. Dr. James Thorp, University of Kansas professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey, serves as the lead principal investigator on the new grant.

“The research team wants to provide research experiences for under-represented participants, particularly rural and Native American students,” Hayford said. “We will use our project to stimulate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program recruitment in Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, and South Dakota, all states that are largely underrepresented in science, and we want to use funds to support faculty and student research at primarily undergraduate institutions.”

Thorp said he and his co-investigators are interested in the importance to ecological processes of different spatial scales — ecoregions down to valley-scale patches within rivers, dubbed “Functional Process Zones” — and how they interact. “For example, what are the appropriate scales to study system metabolism, food webs and biodiversity traits within macrosystems?” he said.

Researchers will sample nine rivers in the U.S. Great Plains, Great Basin and Mountain Steppes. These include the Platte, Niobrara, Humboldt, Bear and Snake rivers, among others. In Mongolia, they’ll investigate nine rivers within similar ecoregions as those in the U.S. Thorp said that studies of each continent could reveal the future of the other: North American river systems, with their dams and presence of non-native fauna, could foreshadow the future of rivers in Mongolia; in turn Mongolia, which has “one of the strongest warming signals in the North Temperate Zone” could indicate changes U.S. rivers will undergo in a future of boosted temperatures.

“This project builds on my past success with NSF-funded projects mentoring undergraduate researchers in aquatic ecology and biodiversity studies,” Hayford said. “All seven of the WSC students who worked in Mongolia or Nebraska with me since 2008 have gone on to careers in environmental education and outreach or have continued their studies at graduate school. Some have done both.”

“WSC undergraduate researchers are hired as research assistants,” Hayford continued. “They are part of a team of international experts in large river ecology and biodiversity, and they will work in the field and the lab with some of the most successful and influential aquatic ecologists and biodiversity experts in the world. This type of experience is extremely valuable for the next generation of ecological researchers, to help them learn methods and to see how the science is done.”

National Science Foundation’s Macrosystem Biology program in the Division of Environmental Biology is supporting this work. KU provided a vital grant of more than $20,000 for a February 2014 workshop that brought together scientists from the U.S., Mongolia and France to develop the ideas for this proposal.

“The Department of Life Sciences at Wayne State has always been very supportive of undergraduate research in terms of work space, supplies, and mentoring,” Hayford said. “We have seen that WSC students become interested in research when they see their peers working in the lab or the field, analyzing data, and presenting their results at meetings. Word spreads, and through peer-interactions we increase the scope of undergraduate research in the Life Sciences and at WSC.”

“Wayne State undergraduate researchers who participated in this type of NSF-funded research in the past have presented their studies at national and international meetings,” Hayford said. “We expect the new undergraduate researchers to also have these opportunities. I will hire two students per summer over about three summers. I also may have the chance to hire students to work in the lab at WSC. Our students will be working on some of the most spectacular and interesting rivers in the central and western U.S.”

Co-principal investigators on the project are: Mark Pyron, Ball State University; Jon Gelhaus and Alain Maasri, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia; Walter Dodds, Kansas State University; Bazartseren Boldgiv, National University of Mongolia; Olaf Jensen, Rutgers University; Scott Kenner, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology; Dan Reuman, University of Kansas; and Sudeep Chandra, University of Nevada Reno.