A woman holds a fish, pretending to kiss it.

UGA graduate student brings public education to freshwater conservation, GIS mapping

It’s fitting that Carleisha Hanns grew up to be a cartographer—her early life spanned continents. She was born in Belgium and raised in Tennessee by military parents who lived and worked all around the world before her birth. 

The Odum School of Ecology graduate student and 2022 James E. Butler Fellow now applies leading mapping technology to ecological conservation. Among other projects, she’s determining the suitability of stream restoration sites through GIS—or geographic information systems, digital tools used to visualize and analyze geographic data. 

“I’m really passionate about using science to create management strategies for practitioners,” said Hanns, a River Basin Center student affiliate working in the Wenger-Freeman lab.

Science education through the years

Hanns credits her initial interest in science to two things—her father’s investment in nature and her science teachers’ passion. 

“I was always trying to bring some animal home, and my parents would just say, ‘You cannot take this box turtle. That’s illegal,’” quipped Hanns.

Her dad taught her about bugs and plants, and her whole family—including her two older brothers—spent a lot of time outdoors.

Her early education was hugely influential, too.

“In high school and middle school, I had really brilliant science teachers,” said Hanns. “They were all women and just very inspiring and knowledgeable. That really left a mark on me. I really liked learning about the world that I live in and trying to understand how it works.” 

She’s continued their legacy, offering representation to the next generation.

While in Colorado, she spoke at the Denver Natural Science Museum’s Girls & Science program, which introduces girls of all different ages to a range of science careers. 

She made her way there after earning her bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Tennessee, where she discovered her interest in freshwater ecology.

A woman stands in a bright green field, the sky visible behind her.
Conservation easement monitoring in Steam Boat Springs, Colorado. (TNC)

After a stint at Disney World educating people about conservation practices, Hanns pivoted to a role at Conservation Fish Hatcheries Inc. There, she propagated rare and endangered fish throughout the Southeast.

She began teaching herself GIS, expanding on skills built during her undergraduate degree. That was when she saw an early career opportunity with The Nature Conservancy’s Denver chapter. She moved to Colorado and undertook several mapping projects for conservation efforts. Hanns gained an appreciation for the breadth of the work. 

“I got to see all the moving parts that make conservation work,” she explained. 

In the field

It was her love of her job with The Nature Conservancy that made her want to enroll in graduate school. To continue doing the kind of hands-on work she loved, she knew she needed to pursue another degree. She turned to the River Basin Center at UGA, whose mission closely aligns with her passion for applied freshwater science. 

TNC staff Teresa Chapman and Carleisha Hanns, two women, stand in a forest.
Reforestation seeding experiment in the recently burned 2020 wildfire area at the Cal-Wood Environmental Education Center with TNC staff Teresa Chapman and Carleisha Hanns. (Catherine Schloegel, TNC)

“I saw the ICAS program—the integrative conservation and sustainability program—and I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do.’ I want to work on conservation projects and planning, and I want it to be in freshwater,” said Hanns.

The Nature Conservancy kept her on part-time, and she’s continued her mapping work with them alongside her graduate studies. 

She isn’t exactly sure what direction her thesis will take. Right now, her work centers on the Conasauga River Basin and how shoals impact fish populations. With shoals disappearing, some benthic fish like darters may experience disruption to their life cycle or have a harder time moving around.

“I’m interested in understanding if the distance between shoals affects the flow of genetics, potentially. I want to know if fewer shoals cause separate populations because some fish can’t travel as well,” explained Hanns. 

Outside of academia 

Outside of school and research, Hanns is a runner and hiker. She also creates black-and-white animal portraits in her spare time—which, as a graduate student, there isn’t much of.

When she finishes school, she’ll seek some kind of applied research position. She loves The Nature Conservancy, but would be amenable to a range of roles. 

“I’m open to any NGO or government positions where you’re using science-backed management strategies and developing conservation strategies,” she said. “I like to be in that type of role: project management of a conservation plan. That’s kind of like my dream role.” 

She’s especially passionate about freshwater in part because she wants to ensure equity for women like her. 

“Being a woman of color, we’re disproportionately affected by water management not being done well,” she explained. 

And she’d love to fold science communication into her work somehow. 

A woman in a coat, hat and boots stands outside in a snow-covered field, mountains, trees and sky visible behind her.
Conservation Easement monitoring in Boulder County, Colorado. (TNC)

“Communication is important in all science, but especially in conservation and sustainability, because those have direct impacts on people,” she explained.  

To Hanns, it’s not just about doing right by communities—it’s also about effective conservation. 

“We say in conservation that we want people to do their part,” she said. “But it’s hard for people to understand the effects of their actions if they really don’t understand the deep connections that they have with nature.”

And as Hanns points out, advancing public education and input doesn’t have to be hard. 

“Sometimes it’s just a simple conversation or a communication pamphlet. We have to meet people where they’re at.”

A sneakered foot graphic appears alongside the text, "John Spencer Memorial 5k Run and Walk."

2023 John Spencer Memorial 5k Run & Walk

UPDATED Jan. 27, 2023: The run will now begin at the Odum School of Ecology. See map and directions.

Written directions:

  1. From ODUM, follow sidewalk to GREEN STREET, follow to STOPLIGHT at E Campus Rd, and cross safely to SPLIT SCREW
  2. Cross bridge over railroad, and follow sidewalk past Georgia Museum of Art in between Lamar Dodd and Hugh Hodgson Schools of Art and Music to River Rd towards GREENWAY BRIDGE OVER OCONEE
  3. Cross GREENWAY BRIDGE OVER OCONEE, turn right, and go under GA-10 LOOP. Continue on the Greenway until the TRAILHEAD/BUS STOP.
  4. From the TRAILHEAD/BUS STOP, take the crosswalk straight across N OCONEE ACCESS Rd to the adjacent GREENWAY.
  5. Continue down the sidewalk to the GREENWAY, and take a left to the TURN AROUND.
  6. High-five whoever is there, turn around, and reverse the course:
  7. Go back down GREENWAY, take a right up the sidewalk to N OCONEE ACCESS Rd.
  8. Cross safely to the TRAILHEAD/BUS STOP and continue back along the GREENWAY.
  9. When GREENWAY goes under GA-10 LOOP, take LEFT to cross GREENWAY BRIDGE OVER OCONEE
  10. At the end of the bridge, CROSS ROAD SAFELY and follow the sidewalk to your LEFT back up in between Lamar Dodd and Hugh Hodgson Schools of Art and Music and past Georgia Museum of Art to the SPLIT SCREW; this is the end of the 5K!
  11. Cross E Campus Rd safely and head back to ODUM for treats and refreshments.

The Odum School of Ecology Graduate Student Organization will host the 7th Annual John K. Spencer Memorial 5K Run & Walk at 8 a.m., Jan. 28, 2023 at Horseshoe Bend (off College Station Road).

The event honors the memory of John Spencer, a graduate student at the Odum School of Ecology and River Basin Center. He was an extraordinary individual loved for his humor, generosity, enthusiasm and kindness. He studied urban streams and was passionate about freshwater ecology, conservation and ecological restoration.

No registration is required to participate in the event.

Participants can make a donation to the UGA River Basin Center’s John Spencer Small Research Grants, a program that supports graduate student research with small grants up to $2,000. You can donate online using this link.

With questions, contact event organizers Fabiola Lopez Avila, fabiola.lopezavila@uga.edu; Shelby Bauer, shelby.bauer@uga.edu; Jasmine Longmire, jasmine.longmire@uga.edu; or Carleisha Hanns, carleisha.hanns@uga.edu.

An image of the Oconee Wildlife Management Area, GDNR

2023 Upper Oconee Science and Policy Summit

The Upper Oconee Science and Policy Summit will be held 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023 at the UGA Special Collections Library.

The event is hosted by The Upper Oconee Watershed Network and sponsored by the UGA River Basin Center, UGA Office of Sustainability, Athens-Clarke County Stormwater Management Program and the Athens-Clarke County Water Conservation Office.

Aquatic research programs provide valuable information and knowledge that better inform policies and management decisions. The summit brings together scientists, policymakers, activists, students, managers and community members from across the region to explore the intersection between water resource science, management and policy in the Upper Oconee Watershed.

Abstract Submission and Registration

The Upper Oconee Watershed Network is still accepting abstracts for the fourth biennial Upper Oconee Science and Policy Summit. Oral presentations are limited to six minutes. Posters are also invited. Attendance and lunch are free. However, please register for an accurate headcount. To register and submit proposals here. The deadline for abstract submissions is January 31, 2023. There is no deadline for registration.

For more information or questions, contact Bruno Giri at: bruno420us@gmail.com

An image of the road and levee (right), with riverward land (left) showing evidence of past floods in the form of scour holes. Photo by Matt Chambers

Developing Flood Solutions Along the Mississippi and Missouri River Basins

Written by Sarah Buckleitner

During a time of extreme rainfall patterns, river communities face unprecedented challenges. In a recent NPR article, writers Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco and Eva Tesfaye covered the flooding along the Mississippi River Basin, where IRIS researchers are looking for solutions to frequent and severe flooding caused by intensified rainfall.

Families within these communities are faced with deciding between dangerous, damaging floods, and governmental buyout offers for their homes that aren’t enough to allow them to start over in a safer place.

This problem has been intensified by outdated flood mitigation systems and a changing climate, which have led to increased development in areas of high flood risk and severe weather events that put flood mitigation systems at risk of failing.

An image of the road and levee (right), with riverward land (left) showing evidence of past floods in the form of scour holes. Photo by Matt Chambers

Communities often seek to prevent rivers from flooding by building levees. However, levees can offer a false sense of protection, causing towns to increase development and investment around the levee. This phenomenon is called the “levee effect.” However, no levee can withstand all floods—and when the river overflows the levee, flooding can cause potential loss of life, home, and livelihood.

Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems researchers have found that levee setbacks—a type of natural infrastructure that involves moving the levee away from the river, so that the river can spread out into floodplains—may hold the key to reducing flooding in more populated areas.

Graduate student Matt Chambers is working with the Atchison Levee Board and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha district to help engineer solutions to flooding in the Missouri River Basin through levee setbacks.

Up to this point, Chambers had been working on developing levee setback designs and hydraulic modeling to support the project from Athens, Georgia, but last week he had the opportunity to step into the communities and project sites.

“We are working to translate what we have learned in academic studies to practice,” Chambers said of the project. “It is wonderful to work directly with the folks our research is intended to help. Their needs and the lay of the land help contextualize our solutions.”

On Tuesday, October 25th, Chambers attended a stakeholder’s workshop to present the team’s current designs to the levee board, learn more about their needs, and hear their feedback.

Chambers spoke to how important these workshops are in ensuring that their research remains grounded in the real needs of communities.  “Workshops like these provide us researchers with opportunities to understand stakeholder needs and ground our academic solutions for real communities. I’m thankful to the Corps for bringing us all together and facilitating the conversation.”

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Resource Specialist in the Omaha District, David Crane, also spoke to how the work he and Chambers are doing will help communities and accelerate the field.

An image of David Crane standing in a “borrow pit,” which he designed to act like a natural wetland. Photo by Matt Chambers

“We have an opportunity here to bring all of our minds and resources together to try and help people. Regardless of whether these specific projects get implemented, this research is going to advance the field, and will eventually be used to help people in other areas.”

A woman smiles, holding a largemouth bass, grass and a river visible behind her.

UGA graduate student pursues environmental justice in freshwater science

For Jasmine Longmire, ecological justice feels personal. 

During her junior year at Georgia Gwinnett College, she experienced a kidney failure that changed how she views her health—and her purpose. She had to take an entire year off, but the scare set into motion her current trajectory. 

“That thought process of, ‘I’m gonna die,’ shook me to the core,” she said. Several medical professionals overlooked her failing kidney, which resulted in a full removal of her right kidney at 20 years old. “After it was over, I thought, ‘I’m down one kidney. But I’m still here. I can still do the things I want and feel like I was put here to do, and for me, that was freshwater conservation.” 

Her personal brush with serious health issues spurred her to think critically about people living with significant medical conditions related to environmental pollutants.

Longmire hopes to work in freshwater conservation science, addressing current and past ecological injustices. Someday, she might like to teach and research on both topics.

Now, the Odum School of Ecology graduate student, 2022 John Spencer Fellow and affiliate at the River Basin Center is pursuing her master’s in ecology in the Wenger-Freeman lab. 


Longmire estimates she lived in about seven different states growing up. But amidst all that change, she remembers a constant: nature documentaries. She’d watch them with her mother, and it helped her recognize her interest in science. 

College courses confirmed that passion. 

She was in class with Elizabeth Sudduth when she settled on one focus of her future career. Sudduth was honest about some of conservation science’s discriminatory practices as she lectured on the history of the discipline. 

“We have generations upon generations of people who are [disadvantaged] by environmental hazards because of who they are or where they were born, or just because of their simple race or gender,” Longmire said. Through research-based ecological solutions, she wants to fix that. 

She’s hopeful for the future, and the lecture inspired her to put environmental justice at the center of her later work. 

“We’re at a place in conservation science where we understand it’s actually good to have people from different backgrounds, minorities and other voices on a project,” said Longmire. “They have different perspectives that someone outside of that community wouldn’t have thought of.” 

It’s a step in the right direction and a problem at the forefront of a lot of environmental researchers’ minds.

She also got hands-on field experience at Georgia Gwinnett, working under Peter Sakaris. 

“His love for freshwater is just amazing,” Longmire explained. It was his passion—and instruction—that helped her settle on a freshwater track. 

With him, she conducted a follow-up study on the Northern snakehead’s population health, after a project conducted by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources on the invasive species. The Northern snakehead was first found in Georgia in 2019 and has been a concern ever since.

She begrudgingly admires the species’ tenacity. “This fish. It’s just so determined. It can physically breathe air for certain periods of time, as long as it’s moist enough.”

Beyond UGA

Still in her first year of graduate school, Longmire hasn’t definitively settled on the scope of her graduate research. But she has a few headings. 

Her work will be conducted on the Broad River, one of Georgia’s last free-flowing rivers and home to at least one endemic species, the shoal lily. She’ll expand some of the monitoring done by the Broad River Watershed Association. 

“Right now, I’m mapping out the main river and then its tributaries, and then I am pinpointing each agricultural source that is near that river or can be put into the river based on where it branches off,” explained Longmire. 

She also hopes to investigate industrial sources, wastewater and the complicated topic of reservoir sedimentation, where she hopes to focus the bulk of her master’s work.

When she’s not in class or in the field, Longmire likes to volunteer for river cleanups, read—if she has the bandwidth—or curl up with her dog Sage or leopard gecko Blu and catch an episode of Midnight Gospel on Netflix. 

Though she knows it will have a freshwater and environmental justice bent, she’s not sure what’s next after her master’s. But remembering the impact her professors had on her, Longmire might want to teach undergraduates someday. 

People in yellow vests stand around bags of trash pulled from rivers.
Participants in the yearly Georgia Waterway Cleanup, hosted in October by Rivers Alive, found everything from mattress springs to whole vehicle tires. Longmire volunteered this fall.

“I’d love to have the chance of being someone’s support system like that, helping them and saying, ‘Hey, you can do this. I know it seems impossible. But you can do this if you want,’” she said. 

The John Spencer Fellowship fund honors the legacy of John Kyle Spencer, a master’s student at the Odum School of Ecology who passed away in 2016. The fellowship was first established through the generosity of his friends and family.

Two people stand and present to a group gathered. A bright yellow plant is visible to the right.

Toilets, taboos and turning waste into a valuable resource

Hayley Joyell Smith is on a mission to stop wasting waste. 

A doctoral candidate in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and River Basin Center affiliate, Smith serves as a geosciences educator and the board director of PHLUSH—a nationwide nonprofit that advocates for sanitation justice, public toilet availability and ecological systems that restore health to water, soils and communities.

Through her nonprofit and education work, she hopes to change the way students, water resource practitioners and even municipalities think about waste management, using eco-sanitation to frame urine and feces as valuable nutrients to reintegrate into a system.

“There are a lot of movements and technology in sustainability that are highly focused on mitigating our impact on the Earth. But let’s shift the paradigm—we’re not just mitigating our harm, we’re actually creating good,” said Smith.

Early Interest

Smith discovered her love of water and rocks while she was young. She grew up in Anderson, Indiana, where her family spent time outdoors camping and fishing. 

“I made friends with the trees,” explained Smith. “I don’t ever remember being scared of bugs or snakes. I always remember feeling comfortable in nature.” 

Now a seasoned academic, Smith felt more comfortable outdoors than in the classroom as a child. She has dyslexia, and it impacted her school experience. “When I got out in the wilderness, doing these trips, it didn’t require math. It just required really good observation,” she said.

Smith completed The Environmental Ethics Certificate Program here at UGA, and the first chapter of her dissertation is on the ethics of ecological sanitation systems.

It wasn’t until her undergraduate degree at Hanover College that she began to consider science as a career path more seriously. Interested in learning more about the Earth, she first took an intro to geology course, and then a month-long Maymester course that took her all the way to New Mexico, to conduct hands-on field work. 

While there, she had a conversation with her geology professor about opportunities to use science as a tool to improve the environment. That discussion prompted her to add geology as a second major.

During her undergraduate degree, she integrated philosophy and geology, letting each discipline inform the other, eventually visiting China to study Taoism alongside her research on the Three Gorges Dam. 

Smith’s real-world experiences and interdisciplinary background remain hugely influential to her. Now, she’s dedicated huge portions of her career to helping other students learn in experiential ways. 

The HydroLink

After receiving a master’s degree in marine, earth and atmospheric sciences from North Carolina State University, Smith worked at a nonprofit called RiverLink. There, she developed and built an interactive model of urban water and wastewater systems to help educate the public on how water moves from a water source to their tap and beyond.

Through a series of pumps and valves, participants can move water through every stage of the system. The Urban HydroLink is complete with a miniaturized home, water tower and waste treatment plant—it’s almost quaint. 

And that’s entirely purposeful, according to Smith. 

“We know from the research and experience that models are engaging. We learn better when playing,” she said. “If you want people to remember something, make it fun.”

Her doctoral work puts that theory to the test. She’s studying student understanding and recall of water and waste systems before and after interacting with the HydroLink. 

True to Smith’s penchant for the tactile and hands-on, her methods include art. Students draw diagrams of water systems before and after playing with a HydroLink, to capture their mental schema of the system at each point. 

Smith demonstrates the HydroLink. Through her public education, she encourages people to to move from a “flush and forget” to a “capture and cultivate” mindset around waste.

Their diagrams are drastically more accurate and detailed after using the interactive model. 

And that might actually go a long way toward changing their water use for the better. Most often, education precedes conservation. Her latest findings show that students are open to adopting new sanitation practices. “My data suggests that students here at UGA would prefer to use toilet systems that contribute to solutions and sustainability,” Smith explained. “I don’t think any of those students, when they flush a toilet, want to cause harm to the natural environment or a downstream community.” 

Someday, Smith would love to see the HydroLink support education in classrooms and nonprofits around the country, possibly with customizations to more closely mimic a given municipality’s system. 

Journey to PHLUSH

Smith is a globetrotter, and became aware of a dearth of humanitarian efforts on the sanitation front during her travels.

“I started noticing that there were so many initiatives to build wells, but there seemed like this very obvious other side that was really neglected,” she said. “I began learning more about how to safely treat household wastewater and then found myself building systems in developing countries. It wasn’t how I originally thought I would use my science skills, but it’s meaningful work that helps the environment.”

Smith builds her first biofilter for a household water system.
Smith working on a system she built in a Hmong Community in Laos. Eco-sanitation isn’t Smith’s only area of sustainability expertise: Working with the Women of the Sustainabilities Initiative, she learned natural building and led workshops on the subject in South America in late 2009. “It was cool to apply my geology knowledge to understanding how to make building materials,” said Smith

A decade later, she got involved with PHLUSH—which stands for Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human. But she’s been active in conservation spaces before and intends to make it a core component of her career. 

Both in her academic roles and her position with PHLUSH, Smith has found that talking about waste and eco-toilet sanitation systems can be an uphill battle. 

There’s a strong stigma around discussing feces and urine—and a lot of that is biological, Smith acknowledges. “We have survived from an evolutionary standpoint because of our ability to identify danger. And poop is dangerous,” she explained. “So, there is a genetic disposition to respond with a lot of disgust.”  

But it’s perhaps more disgusting that we pollute drinking water through wastewater systems, Smith points out. Learning how to avoid contaminated drinking water helps overcome people’s initial hesitancy to engage with the topic.

And having conversations about sanitation is necessary, she maintains. Eco-toilets are a fundamental part of environmentally conscious waste management, using nutrients, carbon and water in a more circular way.

As PHLUSH works to provide adequate public restroom access across the nation, agitate for increased sanitation funding and provide sanitation relief after natural disasters, the nonprofit pairs its work with the principles of eco-sanitation.

Most eco-toilets first separate liquids from solids. Urine contains most of the nutrients found in human waste, and feces house most of the pathogens. The urine then goes through a pasteurization processes—which might be as simple as letting it sit isolated for a few weeks—before being used as fertilizer. Feces, in dry environments, go through a pasteurization and composting process, completely converting to soil.

Smith’s work on the nonprofit board is just one facet of her career.

She has dreams of becoming a professor, buying land in North Carolina and building a closed loop home there, widening the scope of her advocacy and anti-waste work. And she wants others to join her.

“Let’s teach people about systems that are solutions to nutrient deficiencies in our soil, that are solutions for our freshwater resources and water conservation,” said Smith. “Let’s put in systems that empower people so that they can be part of a system that contributes to good.”

Learn more about Smith’s current and past work at her website.

Researchers reveal need to examine link between two major environmental threats

A recently published study may guide the future of invasive species and hypoxia research

There is a critical need to explore two of the biggest environmental threats—invasive species and hypoxia, or low levels of oxygen dissolved in a body of water—side-by-side, according to a new literature review conducted by a team of Odum School of Ecology researchers.

The study, published in Biological Reviews, underscores gaps in aquatic ecology research and offers scientists a clear next line of study on two of the largest global environmental stressors.

“These two issues separately had been seen as really big problems—exotic species introductions and hypoxia. You see a lot of literature on both,” said Jeb Byers, who helmed the project. “We were just putting two-and-two together, and thinking there could be this possibility for synergism between those, particularly with aquatic invaders.”

Byers, professor and associate dean at the Odum School of Ecology, served as lead author on the project, which examined 100 studies on hypoxia and non-indigenous, or invasive, species. Over the course of a year, the team tackled four or five papers at a time, extracting the relevant information and creating a large database.

Sixty-two percent of the studies found that invasive species do better than native species in little-to-no oxygen environments. But most studies only looked at the impact of low oxygen and invaders on one species, limiting their scope. Exploring the interaction between invasive species and low oxygen at the larger level of communities and ecosystems is critical, according to the researchers.

Dr. Jeb Byers, Associate Dean for Research and Operations and Professor of Ecology, poses for a portrait in a lab in the Ecology Building.
Jeb Byers, associate dean for research and operations and professor of ecology, poses for a portrait in a lab in the Ecology Building. 

“Understanding how these things play out at a larger level is one of the things we found is missing,” said Byers. “It’s really needed for management.”

If invasive species actually create low oxygen in a body of water—a question only one-quarter of studies explored—managers may only need to tackle one issue. Identifying and eradicating a hypoxia-creating invader would kill two birds with one stone, alleviating both problems at once.

A figure shows the number of studies that looked at hypoxia tolerance and the number of studies that looked at hypoxia creation.
For hypoxia-tolerance studies, the group assessed the question: Did the non indigenous species tolerate low oxygen relative to normal oxygen? For hypoxia-creation studies, the researchers assessed the question: Did the NIS create hypoxia? Two studies that were categorized as ‘No’ for hypoxia creation reported hypoxia alleviation.

Certainly, the problems of exotic species and depleted oxygen are ours to fix. They’re exacerbated and created by human activity, Byers explained. 

Invasive species are transported through human movement. Millions of metric tons of ballast water, held in ships for stability during transit, are dumped in U.S. ports each year. Each ton contains anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 zooplankton organisms.

“It’s a compelling topic…these anthropogenic changes that we’re imposing on systems are not acting in isolation. They tend to compound one another,” he said. “Often, you have climate change, interacting with invasive species, interacting with pollution.” 

It’s a chain reaction. Human-driven climate change leads to warmer water. Since warmer water holds lower levels of dissolved oxygen, it in turn creates hypoxia.

“I think the biggest contribution of this paper is just bringing this issue to people’s consciousness,” said Byers. 

Co-authors on the study included Odum Ph.D. student Julie Blaze, undergraduate students Alannah Dodd and Hannah Hall and Paul E. Gribben, professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Van Rees takes multidisciplinary approach to research, conservation outreach

Charles van Rees has always been into nature.

Growing up in Needham, Massachusetts, he prided himself on being the “weird kid who knew what bug that was.” But during his teen years, environmental science classes revealed that many of the plants and animals he enjoyed were in peril. He’d also spent a few years immersing himself in East Asian martial arts and their underlying philosophies, which included strong components of morality and personal responsibility.

“As a 15-year-old boy, that affected me a lot,” he said. “I thought, ‘You’ve got to do something about it.’”

He studied conservation science at Connecticut College and then earned a Ph.D. in ecology, evolution and behavior at Tufts University, where he also pursued interdisciplinary studies in water resources management. Now an assistant research scientist at the Odum School of Ecology, and an affiliate at the River Basin Center and Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems (IRIS), van Rees describes himself as a conservation scientist and naturalist.

“I’m not just interested in doing science,” he said. “I want to specifically apply scientific research to promote conservation action and impact.”

Intersections and infrastructure

Freshwater is a major intersection between protecting wildlife and building a better future—a big nexus of societal and ecological dynamics that goes both ways, according to van Rees.

“When you look at a complex system, if you want to be efficient about impact, you look for that one central piece that you can influence and that will cause everything else to change,” he said. “A lot of times freshwater is a good leverage point, because so much other stuff revolves around water: human and non-human life—because we have to drink water—agricultural food production, climate, disaster, international politics, species distributions.”

Van Rees arrived at UGA in 2021 as a postdoctoral research associate at the River Basin Center, hired to work with the Network for Engineering With Nature. IRIS founded N-EWN in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineering With Nature initiative to build a network of partners devoted to accelerating the field of natural infrastructure and nature-based solutions.

“Charles is an extraordinary naturalist with very broad training,” said Seth Wenger, director of the River Basin Center. “His skills, combined with his productivity, positivity and enthusiasm, will make him an asset in this new role.”

With N-EWN, van Rees helps coordinate the biodiversity arm, centered around integrating biodiversity conservation and sustainable infrastructure development.

“The paradigm that we’re striving for now is, can we do more than just mitigate for the damage we cause whenever we build infrastructure?” he said. “Instead, we’re trying to illustrate that you can do restorative infrastructure, you can do net-positive stuff for wildlife, you can find these win-win situations for people and the environment.”

In this role, van Rees collaborates closely with professionals from diverse disciplines—landscape architects, environmental policy and economics experts, engineers and hydrologists, for example.

“We sit there and try to communicate across huge differences in expertise, professional culture and vocabulary, and then we write cool interdisciplinary papers that bring all these knowledges together in new and powerful ways,” he said. “It has been really thrilling to get to do that every day for a job.”

Van Rees presents at the Network for Engineering With Nature’s biodiversity retreat last year. He helps coordinate N-EWN’s biodiversity arm, centered around integrating biodiversity conservation and sustainable infrastructure development. Photo by Sarah Buckleitner

In August, van Rees and a team from N-EWN published a study that addresses the critical need for effective monitoring—and timely reassessment—of nature-based solutions projects. With passage of the trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill, and an increase in climate risks to mitigate through infrastructure, the stakes are high.

“We know that billions of dollars are about to come funneling into national infrastructure for the next however many years,” van Rees said. “How do we do this in a way that is strategic, deliberate and logical? We know we’re going to make some mistakes. How do we document those mistakes and do better going forward? How do we make nature-based solutions maximally effective?”

Biologist ruins everything

This spring, around the same time he gave a TEDx talk on nature’s role in inspiring creativity and innovation, van Rees launched the Gulo in Nature blog. It grew out of a question he asked himself after observing the gap between academic researchers and people he met on the street: Why isn’t conservation reaching the majority of people?

“If no one has any idea what any plant or animal species is, how the heck is anyone going to care?” he said. “If we can get people the slightest bit interested in nature and biology and evolution, they may learn something and might have more to say when those issues come up in our society.”

Gulo, a Latin word meaning “glutton,” is the scientific name of the wolverine, an animal with a huge appetite that wanders over large expanses of wilderness—not unlike van Rees’ approach to learning about all aspects of the natural world. But the blog isn’t for nature nerds like him. It’s an entry point for people who don’t spend time outside, a catalyst for welcoming outsiders to science and natural history.

A 2021 selfie in Rocky Mountain National Park, taken while van Rees was moving to Georgia from his last position in Montana.

Accordingly, the blog takes inspiration from pop culture. Posts in the “Biologist Ruins Everything” category include van Rees explaining the science behind popular curiosities like the squirrel superhero meme (spoiler alert: they’re just scratching) and where turkeys sleep at night, after an episode of the sci-fi series “Rick and Morty” raised the question but neglected to answer it. In other categories, like “Naturalist Answers” and “The Deep Stuff,” he explores questions like why do people find birdsong relaxing and what is biodiversity?

Van Rees contributes to multiple podcasts, serving as the resident bird nerd and “science guy” for the outdoor podcast Nature Guys (look for the Thanksgiving episode on cranberry bogs) and as conservation correspondent for K9 Conservationists, dedicated to the use of trained dogs for wildlife conservation research.

Before launching Gulo in Nature, van Rees spent more than a year planning, designing and researching search engine optimization to make sure it would be found by his target audience.

“There’s certainly the compulsive need for me to blab endlessly about nature and some desire for a place to channel that, because otherwise I’ll just never shut up,” he said. “From an applied perspective, though, it’s still a conservation thing for me. It’s about reaching audiences that my published papers never will.”

Wax on, wax off

Recently, van Rees spent some time camping in the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona, where he was excited to see his first Painted Redstart and find a large group of riffle bugs in a spring tucked deep in a canyon. When he’s not outside enjoying nature—or writing and talking about it—he’s often engaged in some form of martial arts, which he’s been practicing for about 20 years.

In Athens he’s studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu, MMA (mixed martial arts), and traditional Shorinji-ryu Karate, as well as teaching self-defense. He enjoys the interdisciplinary, mixed-styles nature of MMA—perhaps not surprising given that he combines different branches of science in his academic work.

In his new role as assistant research scientist, van Rees will continue his work with N-EWN but expand his service at Odum to include mentoring graduate students, serving on committees and co-advising students as part of the graduate faculty.

“One of the things I’m most excited about is actually getting to participate and be a part of this community more directly,” he said, “because it’s such a kind and talented group of people.”

A hand rests the tip of a pen on a large map. Design plans overlay maps of Tybee Island.

Affiliates collaborate on Tybee Island natural infrastructure plan

Tybee Island combines human ingenuity with natural resilience in combatting sea level rise

By Sarah Buckleitner

We don’t usually associate sunshine and blue skies with the sort of flooding that can shut down roads and creep into homes. But as sea level rise creeps further inland, coastal communities face a growing number of “sunny day” floods.

While many coastal communities hunker behind seawalls and elaborate levee systems to protect them from the elements, Tybee Island is working with UGA’s Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems and Thomas & Hutton, the city’s engineering firm, to create a plan that combines natural resilience with human ingenuity through the use of green infrastructure.

Photo of flooding on Tybee Island, by Emily Kenworthy, University of Georgia, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant

The proposed plan is to attack the problem by building features on the island and surrounding shoreline and marsh that will slow the flow of water toward the island and improve the community’s ability to handle getting its feet wet.

“We have multiple features, and they’re broken into two groups:  shoreline or marsh features and features on the island,” explained Dr. Félix Santiago-Collazo, assistant professor in the College of Engineering. Santiago-Collazo oversees coordinating activities from UGA’s engineering side of the project.

“The biggest feature is what we’ve been calling a ‘marsh barrier,’ because it’s meant to help expand the marsh so that it can better protect the bayside of the island. The marsh grass itself protects the island from surges because it slows the water’s movement. And if you take energy out of the water from that storm surge, then it won’t penetrate as far inland.”

On the island, the design team has focused on a culvert enhancement project, which is proposed to be installed on Sixth Street. This design centers on the installation of a “box culvert”— two large rectangular openings that are roughly 8 by 10 feet wide—a vast improvement over the restricting, two 30-inch diameter pipes that currently carries water.

The team overlays design ideas with maps of the island. Photo by Emily Kenworthy, University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant

“This was one of our main priorities to tackle because it’s a quick fix and you get a lot from it. For example, we found that if we instead install a box culvert—then the flow improves greatly, which alleviates flooding. Another side benefit of the box culvert is that it provides a bigger space for wildlife to migrate, which was also a component of all this,” said Santiago-Collazo. ‘

If implemented, these two projects would work in conjunction to help keep the town dry. The marsh barrier will provide a slope where the marsh can migrate to higher ground in response to rising seas, while the culvert will help establish more natural flows in the marsh. Simultaneously, the researchers also recommend raising the height of Venetian Drive, so that it acts as a subtle barrier between the houses beyond and the ocean.

“If we install the marsh barrier, then we’ll have a place where the marsh can migrate. So you have that for the marsh, and then you’ll have a higher barrier, which will be street, which will serve to help stop flooding. And then you have your houses on the back end. The project will have the double purpose of providing room for the marsh to migrate while protecting the island, not to mention increased opportunities for recreation and tourism in the greenspaces that will be created, which is really cool,” said Santiago-Collazo.

Healthy marshes provide a number of benefits to communities, including storm surge and flood protection, purification of toxins, and carbon sequestration, as well as places to recreate and spot the wildlife that call them home.

Dr. Clark Alexander, IRIS affiliate and Director of the UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, has focused specifically on the marsh—assessing its health, and identifying where seawalls and other hard armoring may make it impossible for it to migrate.

“What I’m focusing on in this project is the marsh and its health, including its accretion—or growth rate in relation to sea level rise. This is important to know in understanding whether the marsh is going to be drowned by rising water levels, or whether it is going to be able to migrate onto the upland–and if so, where,” Alexander explained.

The researchers are tackling this problem in a two-pronged attack: measuring how quickly the marsh is growing, and identifying where the problem areas may lie in the future.

“We’ve been mapping where the armoring is within the study area so that we’re aware of where the marsh can migrate–which is essentially where the armoring isn’t. In addition to that, we’ve been looking at marsh accumulation rates, trying to understand whether the marsh is keeping up with sea level rise,” Alexander said.

“As in other Georgia marshes, we find that accretion rates are on the order of 1-2 millimeters a year based on measurements at the Fort Pulaski tide gauge, which is not far from Tybee Island. This is far below what the marshes need to survive in the face of a sea level rise rate of 3.4 millimeters a year.  Given this difference, marshes here will need help keeping up.”

Ensuring that the marsh is in good health and has a place to migrate is essential to protecting the back side of the island.

“This research is important because the back sides of islands are much harder to protect. On the front sides of islands, we know how to build dunes and beaches for protection. But the back is just basically a low gradient slide from upland to marsh to intertidal zone to tidal creek. Protecting it is not as straightforward, and it comes with the limitations of people having built right up against the marsh edge, which is a problem,” said Alexander.

To determine just how these components can all work together in the final design, IRIS researchers developed models that simulate the flow of water and test different scenarios that could cause flooding against the green infrastructure features they’ve designed. This includes an entire system intended to improve stormwater management and create an interconnected network of greenspace throughout the island, which will provide recreational opportunities as well as habitat benefits for wildlife, including birds and pollinators.

“My job was to make a combined model that showed how the whole system worked together–including the stormwater infrastructure, improvements that Thomas & Hutton proposed, and the green stormwater infrastructure improvements that our team designed,” explained IRIS graduate student, Matt Chambers, who worked in conjunction with graduate students Daniel Buhr and Haley Selsor from the College of Engineering, as well as landscape architects Alfie Vick, Alison Smith, and Jon Calabria from the College of Environment and Design, Jill Gambill, Coastal Resilience Specialist with the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, and Craig Landry with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The team discusses ideas and plans. Pictured from left to right, Jon Calabria, Craig Landry, Emily Dolatowski, Jill Gambill and Alfie Vick. Photo by Emily Kenworthy, University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

Chambers and his colleagues combined all of the team’s plans by pulling those elements into a numerical model, and then testing them to see whether they could recreate the flooding that citizens had actually observed on the ground.

“To help ground truth this process, they showed us photo evidence of where flooding was happening and we also measured groundwater levels as they changed with tides and rain. And we tried to make it so that the model actually had flooding, or matching groundwater levels, in those places,” Chambers elaborated. “That was quite a difficult process–it took me a while to develop that model, but now we have this testbed where we can try all kinds of different green stormwater infrastructure approaches and their combinations. So we can put in living shorelines, or we can try out rainwater harvesting or we can manipulate different ways of improving the infiltration into the groundwater. We can test sensitivity to rising and fluctuating groundwater levels.”

These models have made clear how green and conventional infrastructure systems can bolster each other and give the research team a clear idea of how much water the green infrastructure can store.

“We’re able to show that our green infrastructure design boosts the function of the gray infrastructure. We were able to see that with the old system, after heavy rainfall events you’d get flooding on the street. But when we put the green infrastructure into our model, that type of flooding was greatly reduced. Green is definitely boosting gray, while also supporting wildlife and habitat, which is great,” Santiago-Collazo said.

The next step is to bring their findings to the community for review so that they can work together to settle on a final design. After that, they’ll pursue permits and funding for construction.

Over the last year, the team has gathered public input through their resident advisory board, geosurvey, where they crowdsourced information on flooding hotspots, and a survey intended to gather information on risk perceptions, experiences with flooding, priorities related to the function of infrastructure (habitat enhancement, cost, flood reduction) and the willingness to pay for these characteristics.

Alan Robertson, project manager for Tybee Island, elaborated on the importance of these outreach efforts. “While the work IRIS has done clearly identifies the importance of including these types of nature-based solutions in Tybee’s resiliency efforts, to date they are difficult to quantify and are new concepts to most people. Public outreach and education are critical in building the political will necessary to make the difficult decisions. Our IRIS partners have developed the nature-based solutions and modeled their effectiveness to help residents visualize the recommendations. Pictures, and in this case animations, do go a very long way in telling a compelling story.”

Images of the dunes and beach on frontside Tybee Island. Photo by Emily Kenworthy, University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

The team has plans to do more targeted outreach moving forward, where they will engage residents who live at the sites of proposed natural infrastructure projects.

“We’re excited to iterate with the people who stand to benefit from these changes to figure out the best options,” Santiago-Collazo said.

While Tybee Island might be the first to put together such an innovative plan for building resilience in its community, the researchers hope that it won’t be the last.

“Tybee Island is laying the blueprint for how island communities can tackle the challenges of climate change head on, in innovative and unique ways,” said Chambers. “They’re seeing the real impacts of sea level rise, and have decided to do something about it, which makes them a kind of early adopter of these resilience measures. I wouldn’t be surprised if coastal communities around the world end up looking to it as an example.”

Mussel conservation video released

The Georgia Department of Resources Wildlife Division just released an educational video on its mussel conservation projects throughout the state.

“If you love the rivers, you’ve got to love the mussels,” said Ani Escobar, an aquatic biologist with whom the River Basin Center collaborates. Escobar works for the Wildlife Resources Division primarily in the Coosa Basin.

Freshwater mussels serve as living filters in steams and rivers, intaking water full of suspended particles—some harmful pollutants—and expelling clean water.

Watch the video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZHySSgtJuc.