It’s All Connected: UCA Professor Explores the Impact of Elements in Freshwater Life

Graduate Research Assistant Anthony Pignatelli and Assistant Professor Hal Halvorson collect samples from Tucker Creek in Conway. Graduate Research Assistant Anthony Pignatelli and Assistant Professor Hal Halvorson collect samples from Tucker Creek in Conway.

Perhaps you’ve heard this one. Algae A floats over to Algae B and says, “Hey, how are things?” Algae B happily responds, “Good, thanks! Business is BLOOMING.”

When we stop to explore connections – among plants, animals, humans and ecosystems – we benefit from that resulting knowledge, and interconnectedness lies at the core of the work of Hal Halvorson and his team in the University of Central Arkansas Department of Biology. Through his work in aquatic ecology, Halvorson explores the connections that exist within aquatic environments like lakes, rivers and streams.

He specifically focuses on availability of elements and its effects on living organisms in freshwater environments: Is there enough oxygen? How are the nutrients distributed? How is the growth of plant life, like algae, affecting animal life? Such questions speak to the delicate balance of these ecosystems and to the focus of Halvorson’s work.

Recently, he was awarded a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a four-year, multi-site project. Through this project, Halvorson and his student researchers will examine the availability of elements – such as nitrogen and phosphorus – in freshwater environments. For as the availability changes, so too do the organisms.

In discussing these changes in freshwater organisms, Halvorson said, “Most of the changes we’re seeing go back to a shift in the elements available.”

The state of Arkansas, he said, has an excess of nitrogen and phosphorus, present both in land and freshwater. Because of the interconnectedness of life, this excess can negatively affect the ecosystem. For instance, an overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorus stimulates the overgrowth of algae, which by decreasing oxygen availability can cause the death of animals and other plants. These deaths then affect human lives.

Felicia Osburn, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biology, records data as Hal Halvorson and Anthony Pignatelli take measurements for their research.
Felicia Osburn, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biology, records data as Hal Halvorson and Anthony Pignatelli take measurements for their research.

“So much of our society is linked to freshwater,” Halvorson explained. “And because elements are the same everywhere, it makes this research applicable within the state and outside of Arkansas as well.”

The NSF grant is a collaborative effort that extends both west and east. Halvorson’s UCA team is working with professors and students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Wyoming, and Middlebury College in Vermont.

“We’re bringing together datasets,” Halvorson added.

The goal is to build a database, the Stoichiometric Traits of Organisms in their Chemical Habitats (STOICH) Database, that hosts information on the elemental make-up of freshwater organisms and their environments. Combining the expanding datasets from the four institutions, the STOICH project is a unified, national effort that draws parallels across states.

“The database will give us a sense of how different systems compare,” Halvorson shared. “I can place the lake I study relative to other lakes around the country. Now, imagine that investigators ask about one lake. Yes, mine and theirs are two different lakes. But in what ways can we connect these together to better understand the different water quality?”

However, the data gathered means little if no one has access to it. This project is therefore extending a line to the public through access and outreach. The database will be publicly accessible, allowing anyone to benefit by better understanding how elemental shifts in freshwater ecosystems affect them.

Additionally, Halvorson is involving both undergraduate and graduate students in the research.

“We have primarily undergrad students. What we’re doing is developing curricula around the grant that we’ll implement here at UCA. We think they will learn a lot,” he said.

The grant also allows greater outreach by partnering with the Society for Freshwater Science’s Instars and Emerge programs, which focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Through professional development workshops, networking and mentoring, these two programs aim to increase the presence and persistence of historically underrepresented populations in the field of freshwater science. Thus, the findings and active experiences of the STOICH project are put in conversation with these groups in an effort to continually diversify the field now and into the future.

“This grant was a great opportunity,” Halvorson shared.

In addition to keeping UCA up to speed with the data revolution, the grant helps to involve more people in the research developments. Because the ecosystem is connected, each part has an affect on another. Understanding how it all fits together supports the survival of the all the planet’s inhabitants.

Graduate Research Assistant Anthony Pignatelli and Assistant Professor Hal Halvorson collect samples from Tucker Creek in Conway.

Science Wednesday: The Science of Vaccines

Science Wednesday: The Science of Vaccines February 23rd, 6:00pm-8:00pm via Zoom.

Allies in STEM Meetings begin tomorrow February 1, 2022

2022 JMNR Photo Contest is open. Submissions accepted through November 1,2022.

4th Annual JMNR Photo Contest

The deadline for the fourth annual Jewel Moore Nature Reserve Photo Contest is rapidly approaching (November 1!!). Instructions for participating are attached.  With the pandemic, economic distress, climate change, and political pandemonium overwhelming us, the nature reserve provides a comforting escape.

Please announce the contest to your students and invite them to submit up to three photographs to my email address.  Please also consider submitting up to three of your own photographs.  There are separate categories for students (undergraduate and graduate combined) and for faculty/staff/alumni.

This is our chance to get a little free publicity for our beautiful reserve – and your chance to see your photographs displayed in the Dean’s office, on the walls in LSC and CCCS, and in UCA publications and web sites.

No cost to enter. Thanks!  David

Dr. David Dussourd
Department of Biology

First Science Wednesday for 2020!

Please visit the Science Wednesday website for more information.

CNSM Wins SGA “Food Fight”

CNSM won the 2019 SGA Colleges “Food Fight” thanks to the efforts of Faith Halcom Yarberry of the Chemistry Department!  Emma Cheek, SGA CNSM Representative, presented the trophy to Dean Addison and Dr. Yarberry on Friday, 1/10/20.  This is the second year of the competition sponsored by the Student Government Association to benefit the Bear Essentials Food Pantry.  

Photo courtesy Rose McGarrity, SGA

CNSM Events During Homecoming Week

This Week in CNSM

Biology Department Publications

Dr. David Dussourd and Dr. Arijit Mukherjee have recently published articles.

Congratulation to Dr. Mukherjee, his lab students  – Ha Ram Kim, Grant Wiggins, Qinqing Yang, and Raj Singh – and former UCA graduate student Jackie Thomas, for their recent publication “RNA-seq reveals differentially expressed genes in rice (Oryza sativa) roots during interactions with plant-growth promoting bacteria, Azospirillum brasilense”!   Please click on this link to read the article.

Congratulations to Dr. David Dussourd and UCA alum Madalyn Van Valkenburg on their publication, along with other authors: “A notodontid novelty: Theroa zethus caterpillars use behavior and anti-predator weaponry to disarm host plants”.   The UCA News website features a more detailed description of the findings, as well as a link to the article at this link.