From Economics to Salamanders

Salamander in the palm of a hand

Sustainability is more than just recycling. This year’s McCullough Institute Research Fellows spent their summer delving into the many facets of sustainability, with projects ranging from the economics of consumers and businesses participating in a micro-donation system to support farmland conservation, to the divergence of a specific salamander population. This year five students reached out to local organizations to connect their research interests to real needs of the community.

For several of the McCullough Fellows, their research projects called them to step outside of their typical studies within their major at UNC Asheville.

Julia Krebs-Moberg sharing information about Groundswell International. “I have always seen myself as a scientist, and seen the natural environment independent of the humans that interact with it, because I wanted to focus, I didn’t want the people to be involved,” said Julia Krebs-Moberg, an environmental studies major who stretched outside of her academic comfort zone and worked with Groundswell International to develop a curriculum teaching individuals in food-insecure areas how to grow and prepare their own food.

“I think this project presented itself to me, and I took it as an opportunity to have a more well-rounded view of how the environment and humans interact and how important it is to consider both,” she said.

Similarly, atmospheric sciences major Ethan Wright branched out from his normal course of study to examine tree seedling growth resulting from the removal of rhododendron—a fast-growing woody plant that tends to shade out small seedlings. He also looked at the microclimate variables in those areas, such as soil moisture and temperature, and sunlight measurements.

“Looking at microclimate variables relates to atmospheric science, and even though I’m not an ecology major studying tree growth, it worked in,” said Wright, who worked with the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab for his McCullough Fellowship. “It was a good way to branch outside of my major and what I study every day, and learn something completely different.”

When he wasn’t downloading and examining data, studying tree seedlings often had Wright out in the field, counting tiny seedlings in the dirt or crawling through the “jungle gym” of thick rhododendron.

Biology major Robert Chambliss spent a lot of his summer in the field, as well, looking for the elusive Weller’s salamander.

“As the Weller's salamander is a rare and largely unstudied species, there has been a lot of legwork involved in investigating potential habitats, with long climbs up to high elevation areas,” Chambliss said. After a long, steep climb, Chambliss sets to work searching for Weller’s salamanders in their favorite hiding places, like under moist, decaying logs. Then he collects genetic specimens—through a somewhat unusual method.

“Since plethodontid salamander tails can automatize—a defense mechanism where the tail breaks at certain ‘break points’ and writhes about detached from the body, distracting a predator and allowing the salamander to escape—a simple pinch is enough to free a small section of tail from the tip,” Chambliss explains. “No worries, though; it grows back!”

Using the data and salamander tails he is collecting over the summer, Chambliss is work with Wild South, a nonprofit organization focusing on salamander conservation in Western North Carolina, to investigate the divergence of Weller’s salamander populations. They hope to determine past environmental and climatic patterns in the Southern Appalachians, and predict the future success of high elevation species, like the salamander.

Farther down the mountain, Karl Knight and Carolina Arias spent their summer in Asheville, thinking a lot about food. Arias, an environmental studies major, partnered with Bountiful Cities to investigate the best ways to support Asheville’s many community gardens, specifically looking at the needs for funding, volunteers and economic sustainability.

“The goal is to use all my research in implementing new programs for Bountiful Cities' Community Garden Network,” Arias said. 

“This has already occurred in some ways: the tool library opened in June after I implemented findings from my systems research. My research on seed libraries and seed saving will be used in the fall when the seed library opens.” Arias will continue her work ina new yearlong position she’s been offered as Bountiful Cities’ new community garden network coordinator.

Knight’s focus was on restaurants in Asheville—and other businesses like hotels—and whether or not their customers would be willing to give “micro-donations” to the Southern Appalachian Highland Conservancy for the protection of conservation areas and farmlands.

A micro-donation, or voluntary surcharge, would be added to the customer’s bill at the end of their meal, similar to a tax or a tip, if the customer agreed. Knight has been focused on researching case studies of other cities and land conservation organizations that have implemented a voluntary surcharge system, and investigating options for putting that system in place in Asheville.

“My personal interest is environmental law,” said Knight, who came to UNC Asheville after working in horticulture and sustainable agriculture. “The reason I chose UNC Asheville to come back to, other than this is my hometown, was that they have an incredible Environmental Management and Policy program. If you’re doing an EMP concentration, you’re going to naturally pick up an economics minor.

“Actually getting out there and testing feasibility, and testing models, and seeing what is the most efficient, and researching that and implementing those things is really the best way to get it.”

All of the McCullough Fellows spent a day learning about each other’s projects and partner organizations, giving them a chance to branch out even further beyond their research. “I feel like I’m learning so much just from those few hours we spend together talking about our projects,” said Krebs-Moberg, “because we’re all working in different organizations, having different successes and different failures, and I just see myself using their experience as a resource.”

The students will continue their research throughout the fall semester. The McCullough Fellowship is made possible through a gift from the McCullough family. For more information on the McCullough Fellowship and upcoming research opportunities with local organizations, visit