Geography students at the University of South Alabama are earning more than extra cash over the summer. They are part of important research that will help determine the future of Mobile Bay.
As part of the USA Summer Undergraduate Research Program, they have joined faculty mentor Dr. Miriam Fearn, associate professor of geography, to investigate the environmental impact of the Mobile Bay Causeway. Their research focuses on Chocalata Bay, a relatively small ecosystem that has lost 80 percent of its water exchange since the construction of the causeway in the 1920s.
Undergraduate Summer Research—Geography students in USA’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program look for freshwater sponges near the Mobile Bay Causeway with faculty mentor Dr. Miriam Fearn, associate professor of geography, and Fearn’s daughter, Gaye Hadley, a mathematics senior at USA. From left to right are Hadley, Fearn, Candice McCullough, a geography senior from Mobile; and Kristie Thomas, a geography junior from Daleville, Ala.
The student research is part of a two-year study at USA that will help determine whether or not ecosystems north of the causeway are healthy and stabilized or if the causeway should be redesigned to accommodate more water exchange.
“We want to understand the ecological effects of the Mobile Bay Causeway on Chocalata Bay, which is representative of other flood basins that are also blocked,” Fearn said. “In determining that, we’ll be able to provide some possible guidelines for future remediation.”
Fearn is enlisting the help of two geography students through USA’s summer research program—a 12-week, multidisciplinary program that encourages undergraduate students to become involved in basic research projects in their fields of study.
“The students have provided valuable data and data collection for this research, and it is a slow and tedious process,” Fearn said. “They are the trench workers. They are the ones analyzing samples and getting the job done.”
As part of the USA student research team, Candice McCullough, a geography senior from Mobile, has been tasked with studying sediment cores from Chocalata Bay. Joining her in the research effort is Kristie Thomas, a geography junior from Daleville, Ala. Both students saw the summer research program as a good opportunity to get to know faculty members and their professional field.
“What better way to find out if this is what I want to do?” said McCullough, who plans a career that combines environmental science and public policy. “This program gives me an idea of how the research works and how it applies to real-world decisions in environmental management."
According to program director Dr. Julio Turrens, the summer research program gives undergraduate students professional experience and allows them to contribute to the body of knowledge in their academic fields.
"One of the goals of the summer research program is to take students who would otherwise be flipping burgers and put them to work in something that is important to them in their development as professionals," said Turrens, also a professor of biomedical sciences at USA.
In addition to providing participants with professional job experience, the summer research program offers student stipends and supplies. The program currently employs 65 students, involving them in more than 50 research projects in a variety of academic disciplines. Students work under the direction of USA faculty mentors who volunteer their time.
The USA Summer Undergraduate Research Program is funded by the Office of Academic Affairs, the USA Honors Program, individual academic units (colleges), the National Science Foundation, Merk/American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Alabama Space Grant Consortium.
The Chocalata Bay study is supported by a $112,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science to Achieve Results program and is a project of USA’s Alabama Center for Estuarine Studies, which aims to understand human modifications of coastal waters.
Other USA faculty members involved with Fearn in the Chocalata Bay research are Drs. Douglas Haywick, associate professor of geology, and Justin Sanders, associate professor of physics.
For more information contact Renee Paul, USA Public Relations at