Real World Experience

Chemistry majors Liuda Svetlova and Noah Gillespie are used to hard work, long hours and challenging semesters—and last summer was no exception. Through a McCullough Fellowship, they spent their summer investigating levels of the toxic chemical TCE (trichloroethylene) in the streams near an Environmental Protection Agency superfund site in south Asheville, an area where a CTS factory plant once stood.

“This project is really interesting because it helps us give back to the community, because this stream is in our community, in Asheville,” said Svetlova, who graduated in 2015. She and Gillespie were able to share their results with the property owners near the site, whose health could be affected by the TCE levels in the soil and streams. “We can apply the knowledge that we learned in the classroom to everyday usage, and help our community out.”

The McCullough Institute for Conservation, Land Use and Environmental Resiliency at UNC Asheville provides fellowships to fund students to conduct their own research projects during the summer and fall.

Chemistry major Liuda Svetlova investigating levels of the toxic chemical TCE in the streams near an EPA superfund site in south Asheville.“I went to all the [McCullough Fellows] student presentations, and they all had to do with the community and finding out useful information that can be used in North Carolina, and more specifically Western North Carolina,” Gillespie said. “I think any time that you can give back to the community, I think that’s the best type of project to do.”

While their research benefited the community, it also created an advantage for Svetlova and Gillespie, who are both employed in their field at Genova Diagnostics, and Environmental Testing Solutions, respectively.

“When I was doing a lot of job interviews, this research was the main thing a lot of them focused on,” Svetlova said. “And they were very surprised. It gives you a leg up to other people that are applying for jobs.”

“I’ll figure it out.”

Environmental studies major Kim Rhodes spent her summer studying maps, learning new software, driving up mountains, and getting a little lost. Her McCullough Fellowship became an opportunity to take her love of research out of the classroom, and apply it to a real world project.

“I like getting into the data and seeing what’s there,” said Rhodes. “It was an opportunity for me to learn different tools and techniques.”

So Rhodes found herself diving into GIS (geographical information system) software—a complicated program she had little experience in—and various maps and data from NEMAC (National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center) in order to map out “hot spots” of cultural and scenic significance in Buncombe and surrounding counties. These places ranged from the Biltmore Estate to Max Patch to farmland. She even visited a number of the spots personally in order to notice and discover things that may not appear on a map or satellite image.

“If there was one slogan for my project, it was ‘I’ll figure it out,’” Rhodes said. “I didn’t know anything about GIS going into it, so there was a lot of ‘I’ll figure it out,’ and the people at NEMAC were really excellent about helping me.

“And now I’m the GIS intern at NEMAC,” Rhodes said. “It just opened a lot of doors for me.”

An Eye on Ecosystems

Karen Landert, a North Carolina native, wanted to use her McCullough Fellowship to help preserve one of the state’s most unique ecosystems: mountain bogs.

“There are some animals and plants in these places that are very rare. In some of these sites, they’re the only place they are found in the world,” Landert said. “So this was an opportunity to work in these places and actually preserve and protect them.”

Landert’s research focused on the tree canopy of these bogs. Using a fisheye lens and GIS technology, Landert determined the percentage of an area covered by the tree canopy, and how that affected the water level and plants down below.

Gaining access to this fragile ecosystem was especially exciting for Landert, who was able to work with scientists and managers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program. “To have their trust and do what I’ve done, it’s been incredible.”

The unique opportunity to work with these organizations in a mountain bog allowed Landert to gather information that can be used by bog managers to help maintain the health of these rare wetlands.

“As someone who’s from North Carolina, being able to do something to keep a little bit of North Carolina wild, I was flat-out amazed,” Landert said.

Giving 100 Percent

Hazel Errett, Alex Payton and Phillip Poole worked together on their McCullough Fellowship project to develop a new technique to control exotic invasive plants—the second leading cause of biodiversity loss on the planet—on UNC Asheville’s campus. This project went beyond pulling up harmful weeds, however.

“A lot of these plants are very prolific seeders, so they reproduce at a very high rate. And a lot of these seeds, they’ll stay inside of the soil five, six, seven years easy,” Poole explained. “So what we try to do is either terminate the seeds while they’re in the ground, or force them to germinate and sprout so they can be removed and controlled. This will make the battle move faster, and a little bit less costly.”

This task was accomplished by inoculating the soil with a mixture of beneficial soil microorganisms that is “complimentary to native soil microflora rather than drenching it with herbicides year after year,” Payton said.

The group worked to eradicate invasive plants like oriental bittersweet and garlic mustard in two areas of campus, near the Sam Millar Facilities Complex and another spot on the south campus.

“The fellowship was very important to us because it really allowed us to stay focused during the summer time, and not have to worry so much about food and rent—all the real world struggles,” Poole said.

“We really did eat, sleep and breathe this research, which is important to get good research,” Payton added. “You can’t go 50 percent on that.”

Want to take your own projects out into the world? The McCullough Institute will soon be accepting applications for this year’s fellowships. Propose your own applied research projects addressing areas of land use and conservation; urban planning; sustainable agriculture; and resilience and environmental sustainability. Submissions from students in all disciplines are encouraged.

To apply, first attend one of the four mandatory information sessions, held from noon-12:30 p.m. or 12:30-1 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 26 in Highsmith, room 218 and from 4-4:30 p.m. or 4:30-5 p.m. on Thursday,  Jan. 28 in Highsmith, room 235. RSVP to the info session by emailing sustain@unca.edu.

Local conservation organizations interested in hosting a McCullough Fellow are encouraged to contact Sonia Marcus, director of sustainability, at smarcus@unca.edu.