Environmental Leadership Center Offers Unique Opportunities for Ecological Research

Water lab technicians perform a titration on water samples.
(L to R) Bridgett Scheiben, Biology ’20; Stacie James, ELC Program Coordinator; Ally Crookshanks, Biology ’21, Water Lab Manager; and Calvin Perdiago, Chemistry 22.

UNG’s unique Environmental Leadership Center (ELC) is committed to environmental leadership and preservation through the UNG Water Lab and the Ecological Protection Lab.

 “UNG campuses are located in transitional environmental areas, between the metropolitan sprawl of Atlanta and the relatively uninhabited regions of the Chattahoochee National Forest,” said Dr. Mike Bodri, director of the ELC. “This location, coupled with the interests of many UNG faculty members, students and community partners, make UNG an ideal institution for carrying out basic and applied research in environmental science.”

The Water Lab, started in 1987, by Dr. Mac Callaham, retired UNG biology professor, has been continuously conducting water quality monitoring of the Lake Lanier Watershed. This project continued with Dr. Robert Fuller, retired physics professor, and is currently under Bodri’s leadership in partnership with (and sponsored by) the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin Group.

The Ecological Protection Lab (EPL), was championed by Fuller in 2008 out of a field botany discussion about the value of hemlock trees to the ecosystem and the grave risk the trees face from the destructive hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA). This aphid-like insect feeds on, and destroys, hemlock tree species. HWA has spread to 17 states, from Georgia to Maine, where they cause large scale mortality of native Eastern and Carolina hemlocks.

Today, the EPL Lab focuses on biological control of HWA, breeding and raising two species of beetles which prey on the woolly adelgids. “The beetles are critical for helping save hemlocks and to re-establish the ecological balance in the North Georgia streams and mountains,” said  ELC program coordinator Stacie James.

Examining a hemlock branch covered with destructive woolly adelgids.

These beetles are released through the U.S. Forest Service in collaboration with other regional university partners. “Our student-run ELC teams conduct themselves very professionally in their field work, data collection and research,” James said. “In fact, the beetle lab was just granted research funds from the Georgia Botanical Society’s Marie Mellinger Field Research Grant Program to investigate the predation rate during different life cycles of one species of predatory beetles.

“We appreciate local support from non-profit organizations, such as the Lumpkin Coalition, which has provided generous support for many years through proceeds from their popular Hemlock Fest. We are proud to see UNG students, faculty, staff, and community partners work together to advance North Georgia’s capacity toward environmental sustainability.” You can help support the Environmental Leadership Center’s mission with your gift.

Wesley Rhinehart

Wesley Rhinehart, B.S. Biology ’22, works as a lab technician in the Beetle Lab. From Columbus, Georgia, Rhinehart started his freshman year looking for something to do at UNG with environmental conservation. He found the ELC and an open job in the Beetle Lab. Working at the lab, then taking an elective conservation biology course helped confirm his career goal. “The course was super interesting, and I was very motivated to continue working in this area,” Rhinehart said. His ultimate goal is, “to continue my education and become a professor or work with a nonprofit organization protecting endangered species.”

Emily Williamson

Emily Williamson, B.S. Biology ’19, arrived on campus as a freshman from Carrollton, Georgia, knowing she wanted to “do something in the science field, but I wasn’t sure if that would be medical or environmental.” Williamson’s career direction quickly took shape as she spent time in class, worked in the ELC Water Lab and saw environmental science in action.

In the Water Lab, Williamson would traverse north Georgia waterways drawing monthly field samples and performing professional-level laboratory tests to measure water quality for 11 streams in the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin.

Today, as the water treatment lab analyst for the Carrollton Water Filter Department, she performs much the same work, drawing and testing water samples from locations throughout the community. Williamson credits the CSM faculty and her Water Lab hands-on data collection experience with helping land her first job.

Morgan Heyde, B.S. Mathematics ’20, a native of Walnut Grove, Georgia, now earning her masters in statistics at The Ohio State University, credits the UNG Research Methods class with introducing her to the ELC and her future.

Searching for a mathematics thesis topic, she learned about the Water Lab and decades of data from water analysis. “I was introduced to Stacie James and everything fell into place,” Heyde said. “The Water Lab introduced me to what a live data set looks like and the additional steps of cleaning and preparing the data that I would never see in a traditional classroom setting.” As a student, Heyde’s work on mathematical modeling of bacterial loads in the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin fueled her interest in applied statistical analysis as a career.

While there may be a Ph.D. in her future, Heyde’s dream career is to work in industrial environmental research. “I would love to work with environmental data,” she said. “Environmental issues will be critical in the coming years – it’s a field that has room to grow and develop.”

Heyde said she is especially appreciative for her Water Lab experience and grateful she could call on her thesis advisor, Dr. Jeffrey Landgren, assistant professor of Mathematics, for advice as she was evaluating graduate school options.