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Environmental Studies students immerse in Smithsonian research

Jason Swartz at his Smithsonian internship

Senior Lizzie DeRycke and junior Jason Swartz landed highly selective Smithsonian Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) and the two Environmental Studies majors spent their summers working on leading-edge research with scientists as their mentors.

DeRycke of Edgewater, Md., worked at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in D.C. looking for both genetic and morphological diagnostic characters for a new cryptic species of Fringe-toed lizard found in Mohawk Dunes, Az. Swartz of Dillsburg, Pa., interned with the biogeochemistry lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater helping with what is believed to be the first global warming experiment in a wetland.

Both DeRycke, who had a Smithsonian REU at SERC two summers ago, and Swartz relished the opportunity, funded by the National Science Foundation, to work side-by-side with scientists.

“The best part was that it was real, applicable research with scientists who do this as a profession,” says DeRycke, who has a second major in Spanish and studied in Ecuador during spring semester. “It made everything I was doing in the lab feel so much more meaningful.”

Swartz, whose internship included a misstep that sunk him thigh-deep in mud, explored how different global-warming factors may allow the marshes or wetlands to remain above sea level instead of disappearing below the surface.

“There are several experiments that look at how the added carbon dioxide and nitrogen change how plants cycle carbon. I helped out with these experiments but spent most of my time working with the new experiment that introduces a third factor: increased temperature” says Swartz, who also has a major in French and went to Peru last January with McDaniel’s innovative, year-long Forest Online course. “The warming, carbon dioxide and nitrogen could allow the marsh to deposit soil faster and stay above sea level.

“I loved that it was hands-on and out in the field.”

Each of the students also discovered new possibilities relevant to their Environmental Studies majors.

“I still like science, although I’m not sure about becoming a researcher,” says Swartz. “But my passion has always been forests — and this experience opened a new door for me. Now coastal ecosystems are right up there with forests and I have a lot to think about in the next two years.”

DeRycke’s work in the lab involved genetics, a subject and course she hadn’t yet studied but now hopes to pursue.

“Once I got a handle on the genetics, I absolutely loved it and I saw how relevant it is to environmental studies,” she said, explaining that she plans on registering for Genetics at McDaniel in the spring. “And, I’m sure I’ll pursue genetics in conservation in grad school.” 

Junior Jason Swartz interned with the biogeochemistry lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Md.