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:

Hydrilla plant forms a dense mat in the water.

Wilde presents on invasive plant hydrilla

Everybody hates an uninvited guest.

Affiliate Susan Wilde recently spoke to a group of Adirondack conservationists, managers and researchers about the the invasive plant hydrilla. The aquatic species is making its way toward the Adirondacks and hosts a cyanobacterium toxic to eagles and other wildlife.

Wilde described the cyanobacterium and neurotoxin several years ago, calling it Aetokthonos hydrillicola, Greek and Latin for “eagle killer, living on hydrilla.”

Read more about Wilde’s talk on the two species here.

Laura Kojima holding an alligator

Grad student assesses alligators’ exposure to contaminants

By Allyson Mann.

Laura Kojima holding an alligator.
Laura Kojima, an Odum School of Ecology master’s student who conducts research at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, has a passion for reptiles—especially the kind that can grow up to 14 feet long with lots of sharp teeth. “Don’t feed alligators,” she cites as one of many safety precautions. “That creates a very bad situation. That’s how you get bit.” (Photo courtesy of Laura Kojima)

Laura Kojima was 15 years old the first time she held an alligator. The California native and Mexican American had decided to visit New Orleans in lieu of having a quinceañera.

“I don’t want to have a party,” she told her mom. “I just want to go to a swamp.”

In Louisiana, she discovered that she loved the culture, the ambiance and the humidity too. And it was during a bayou swamp tour that she met the alligator—a juvenile not more than 2 feet long—not knowing it would be the first of many.

“It was amazing,” she said.

A decade later, Kojima’s alligator encounters are decidedly more circumspect. Now a UGA graduate student at the Savannah River Ecology Lab and the Odum School of Ecology, she is examining the levels of mercury found in alligator tail muscle. She’s also assessing the concerns for contaminant exposure associated with the hunting and consumption of alligators that travel between different areas.

To conduct her research, Kojima captures alligators that are much bigger than the one she met in the bayou. Adult alligators measure up to 14 feet and weigh up to 1,000 pounds.

“I am very cautious in my fieldwork, and I am 100% aware of how incredibly strong they are,” she said. “I choose my team very selectively. We always have our guard up.”

Using wooden bait traps, Kojima and her team bring an alligator on land, secure it and gather measurements and samples before releasing it. They also attach a GPS transmitter that sends location information in real time, allowing her to monitor the alligator’s movements.

Location information is essential for the first question she’s asking for her master’s thesis project, which is supported by a 2021 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship: What is the risk of hunting alligators that originate from the Savannah River Site and move up or down the Savannah River?

A former nuclear facility managed by the Department of Energy, SRS is not accessible to the public, but wildlife can move off the site and onto public hunting grounds. With alligator hunting on the rise for sport and for sustenance, monitoring their mercury levels provides information that can guide hunting advisories.

Kojima earned her undergraduate degree at University of California, Davis, where she managed a turtle project as an intern in UGA alumnus Brian Todd’s research lab. After earning her degree, she worked a six-month position with the U.S. Geological Survey on a garter snake project in California before coming to UGA for graduate school.
Kojima earned her undergraduate degree at University of California, Davis, where she managed a turtle project as an intern in UGA alumnus Brian Todd’s research lab. After earning her degree, she worked a six-month position with the U.S. Geological Survey on a garter snake project in California before coming to UGA for graduate school. (Photo by Andrew Lazenby)

Kojima’s second research question involves evaluating mercury levels and movement behaviors to see if there’s a relationship between the two. At SRS the alligators occupy two manmade lakes, previously used as coolant ponds, that contain differing levels of contaminants. “Do we see alligators in one lake, where mercury is notably higher, having more random or unexpected behavior? That’s the next part of my project that I’m diving into.”

Alligators are a good bioindicator species for monitoring environmental health because, as apex predators, they’re eating fish and other animals that accumulate contaminants. “Through these animals, we’re able to see how certain levels change over time and how they compare within different locations,” she said.

Although she loves working with alligators, Kojima doesn’t want to limit her options. For her master’s project, she’s working as an alligator ecotoxicologist, but she really considers herself to be a herpetologist, a biologist that works with all reptiles.

“I really love working with crocodilians, but it’s a narrow field to be in,” said Kojima, who plans to graduate in May 2023 and hopes to work for a state agency like California’s Natural Resources Agency or Department of Fish and Wildlife. “I feel like there’s more that I can do outside of the crocodilian world. I like the idea of a broader conservation herpetological job.”

Ideally that work would contain an educational component, something she’s passionate about. Kojima is active on Twitter (@LauraKojima) and with Skype a Scientist, a nonprofit that connects scientists with elementary school classes. Last year, UGA’s Marine Institute invited her to talk virtually with K-12 kids about her work with alligators, and this year she spoke to college classes at two different universities about careers in wildlife and herpetology.

Kojima appreciates having opportunities to engage with younger people in the field—and those young enough that they haven’t chosen a path.

“As a woman of color navigating STEM, it’s important for me to show a little bit of representation,” she said. “Because I know there are, especially on the Georgia coast, Hispanic communities. We’re still probably one of the smallest minorities in the field of ecology. I think it’s only like 3% or something.”

Assuming that type of public role isn’t always comfortable, she said, but it’s important.

“When I saw how many people saw the BBC video, it made me a little uneasy, you know?” Kojima said. “But it’s what you have to do to reach the one or two people who are going to be like, ‘Oh, she’s doing that, and she looks like me and comes from a similar background as me. Maybe I’ll be able to do it too.’ Because I would’ve loved to see that growing up, and I never did.”

Kojima enjoys the solitude of her field work.

“It’s just me and my crew, and we’re out on a lake by ourselves, and that’s just unbelievable. I’m so grateful for that,” she said. “It’s just nice being able to be on a boat on a private lake and catch alligators. That’s what I enjoy doing with my time. It’s a lot of fun.”

A group of professionals poses outside.

Affiliate Duncan Elkins named 2022-23 Service Learning Fellow

The Office of Service-Learning has selected eight University of Georgia faculty members for participation in its yearlong Service-Learning Fellows program.

This program provides an opportunity for faculty members from a broad range of disciplines to integrate academic service-learning into their professional practice. Fellows meet regularly throughout the academic year and receive an award of up to $2,500 to develop or implement a proposed service-learning project.

Academic service-learning—one way for students to fulfill UGA’s experiential learning graduation requirement—integrates organized service activities that meet community-identified needs into academic courses as a way to enhance understanding of academic content, teach civic responsibility and provide benefit to the community.

More than 150 faculty from 16 of UGA’s schools and colleges, public service and outreach units and the medical partnership have participated in the program since it was established in 2006. Participants create diverse service-learning projects that pair students with community partner organizations locally, across the state or throughout the world to address community issues such as education, food insecurity, economic development, well-being, nonprofit capacity-building and the environment.

“Through service-learning, these faculty help UGA students make meaningful impacts on community-identified needs and better learn their course content and how it can be applied in real-world settings,” said Paul Matthews, associate director of the Office of Service-Learning.

The 2022-23 Service-Learning Fellows, their respective academic fields and proposed projects are:

Duncan Elkins, lecturer, and Jason Gordon, associate professor, Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources

Elkins and Gordon are redesigning Warnell’s senior project capstone in forestry and natural resources management (FANR 4500S), in which students undertake applied projects with community partner agencies, into a two-semester sequence that will engage students more fully with service-learning best practices.

Thea Ellenberg, lecturer, department of textiles, merchandising and interiors, College of Family and Consumer Sciences

Ellenberg is designing a service-learning element in her course, “Creativity and the Design Process” (TXMI 2010), in which students develop creative problem-solving resources for K-12 teachers with UGA’s Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development.

Carlo Finlay, academic professional and assistant director, Carmical Sports Media Institute, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication

Finlay is enhancing the collaborative, high school-based sports media experiences and service-learning aspects of SPTM 5750, “Social & Digital Media Production for Sports,” in which students deeply engage with and develop social media content on behalf of Clarke Central High School’s spring sports teams.

Allison Injaian, lecturer, Odum School of Ecology

Injaian will partner students in her Urban Ecology (ECOL 3770S) course with Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School students’ after-school “Green Team” to teach hands-on ecology lessons while maintaining the school’s herb and pollinator gardens.

Missy Jackson, director of nursing, University Health Center

Jackson plans to expand academic collaborations between the University Health Center and courses in the College of Public Health, including through service-learning research projects focused on identifying and addressing health disparities experience by UGA students.

Morgan Meyers, lecturer, department of genetics, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences

Meyers is developing an Honors service-learning version of her biology for non-majors (BIOL 2104H) course that will allow students to develop science literacy through researching, creating and disseminating menstrual health outreach education materials for community partner agencies.

Debbie Mitchell, academic professional associate and curator, Founders Memorial Garden, College of Environment and Design

Mitchell plans to engage students in LAND 3410, “Plants of the South,” in service-learning projects with the Founders Memorial Garden, including developing learning products that reflect human-nature experiences in the garden.

The Office of Service-Learning is jointly supported by the Office of the Vice President for Instruction and the Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach. More information on the Service-Learning Fellows Program is available at the Office of Service-Learning’s website,

This story was originally posted to the UGA Today website.

Affiliates featured in essays, news

River Basin Center affiliates keep busy—something journalists and writers have noticed. From creative nonfiction essays to research profiles, several recently published pieces feature RBC scientists.

Scott Connelly, lecturer and graduate program faculty at the Odum School of Ecology was featured in UGA Today in a piece written by Beth Gavrilles.

College of Public Health highlighted research to which affiliates Erin Lipp and Krista Capps contributed in a research profile. Read the story, written by Lauren Baggett here.

Mary Freeman appears in the essay Alleged River in the Bitter Southerner. The creative nonfiction piece was crafted by Hannah Palmer, with Virginie Kippelen contributing photography.

A group of people sit in a shaft of sunlight, listening.

Alumni, students, water equity experts gather for River Basin Center Policy Symposium and Celebration

From Sept. 16 to 17, over 100 people gathered in person and online to hear from experts in water policy, to celebrate the career of Laurie Fowler—former River Basin Center director of policy—and to brainstorm the future of UGA’s Environmental Practicum. 

Na’Taki Osborne Jelks of Spelman College, Linda Mendez-Barrientos of the University of Denver and Josiah Watts of One Hundred Miles shared their expertise throughout the morning on Sept. 16.

Hal Robinson, Georgia-Alabama Land Trust and John Sheesley, Region 4 of the Environmental Protection Agency led an ethics- and law-focused session in the afternoon.

In a segment titled “Using Infrastructure Projects to Advance Equity,” Haley Selsor, Cydney Seigerman and Marshall Shepherd spoke about research conducted here at the University of Georgia.

Laptops and water bottles are visible as people listen and take notes.
Day one was hosted at the Delta Innovation Hub.

Two women pose, holding awards.
Beth Gavrilles and Susan Kidd were two recipients of the inaugural round of the River Basin Center Special Appreciation Awards.

Many of Fowler’s former students attended. In her keynote address, the retired attorney, professor and director reminisced on some of the most memorable moments of her career.

From shutting down Broad St. on a football weekend to dam removals, she and her Environmental Practicum students saw eventful decades. 

The graduate-level course provided opportunities for students to apply what they learned about environmental law and the natural and built environment in the classroom to solve critical environmental problems for governmental, corporate and public-interest clients.  

And for Fowler, some main takeaways underpinned all the policy wins and losses she saw through teaching the course.  

“We need to integrate the input of the people who are going to be most dramatically impacted by our climate recommendations,” said Fowler. “What I really do think is that to change corporations, governments—no matter what level of people—to change what they do in their yards and houses and what products they buy, we’ve got to be kind.”

That—kindness—is something she hopes continues in the next iteration of the Environmental Practicum.

The interactive program on Sept. 17 invited participants to think critically about what worked well for the practicum in the past, and what opportunities for improvement faculty members face as they redesign the course.

The day was designed as a workshop: breakout groups discussed focused prompts in a series of sessions, conversing casually throughout the Odum building and courtyard and reporting back to the larger gathering. Participants’ input was recorded for use in planning the next Environmental Practicum.

The two-day event was originally scheduled for the fall of 2021, but was postponed due to COVID-19. The event was co-sponsored by the Odum School of Ecology, the School of Public and International Affairs and the School of Law.

View talk recordings here.

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Leaky infrastructure driving antibiotic resistant pathogens in local waters

Could your old septic tank be driving a growth in antimicrobial resistant bacteria?

It’s possible, say the authors of a University of Georgia study that identified aging sewer lines and septic systems as the primary drivers of antibiotic resistant bacteria contamination in their samples.

This finding flips the script on the assumption that agriculture runoff or treated wastewater outflows are the main ways antibiotic resistant bacteria are introduced to water systems.

The paper, which was published recently in Water Research, compared water samples that had high levels of antibiotic resistant genes (ARGs) to land use, sewer and septic systems data to determine the source of contamination.

Antibiotic resistance continues to be a major threat to human health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first sounded the alarm to the threat of antimicrobial resistance in 2013, two years later, the World Health Organization issued guidance to combat antimicrobial resistance using a One Health framework that considers the intersecting impacts that humans, animals and the environment have on each other.

In that vein, scientists have been paying close attention to the ways that human and animal waste enters watersheds, which can be a breeding ground for antimicrobial resistant bacteria.

Elizabeth Ottesen, Associate Professor of Microbiology

“There was some recent work out of the USDA in Athens showing that there were widespread antibiotic resistant pathogens in the local streams, so I grew interested in understanding where that was coming from, was it run off from agriculture, either cattle farms in the area or poultry houses, or whether it might be linked to human wastewater,” said senior author Elizabeth Ottesen, an associate professor of microbiology in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts & Sciences.

Ottesen and a team of scientists from UGA, including the College of Public Health and the Odum School of Ecology, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and volunteers from the Upper Oconee Watershed Network collected nearly 1,000 stream samples from 115 sites over 5 years. Then, the samples were analyzed to determine the amount of human and animal fecal waste and ARGs present in them.

“Our initial assumption was that the primary source of human fecal contamination would be incomplete processing of wastewater at the wastewater treatment plant because most of the discussion around human sources of antimicrobial resistance in waters has really focused on wastewater treatment outflows,” she said.

But that’s not what they found. So, the team turned to historical data and maps of local sewer lines and septic systems provided by Athens-Clarke County, which included the location and age, to understand where human waste was entering the water.

Their analysis showed that the samples with the highest levels of ARG contamination matched areas with a high density of sewer lines or aging septic tanks. This suggests that aging water infrastructure, rather than wastewater treatment facilities, could be driving how antibiotic resistant bacteria is spread.

Erin Lipp, Professor of Environmental Health Science

The results set off alarm bells for Ottesen and co-author Erin Lipp, an environmental health scientist in UGA’s College of Public Health.

“I think conventional wisdom has been that when we see antibiotic resistance in streams, it’s mostly from agriculture, and I think this highlights the fact that aging infrastructure can have a lot of impacts that we hadn’t realized before, and water infrastructure is really difficult because we don’t see it leaking, you know. Unless it’s a big break, it’s just happening all the time and you’re not aware of it,” said Lipp.

Athens-Clarke County worked closely with Lipp, Ottesen and their colleagues throughout the study, and county and city leaders are already beginning to target infrastructure improvements based on the data the team provided.

Not all communities may be able to assess these sources of antimicrobial resistance without the type of detailed records the UGA researchers had access to, said Ottesen.

“The ability to then overlay the sewer maps and the septic maps is very unusual, and it’s mainly because of the willingness of Athens-Clarke County to provide us with this really high-quality mapping data,” she said.

The study, “Non-point source fecal contamination from aging wastewater infrastructure is a primary driver of antibiotic resistance in surface waters,” is available online.