Exploring the Cache – Future watershed scientists set out on a canoe trip down the Cache River last summer. The six students, fellows of the $3.2 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship grant from the National Science Foundation, studied the Cache River watershed in depth as part of their training. Photo Provided. (courtesy)

Southern Illinois University Carbondale is a major player in a national effort to train the next generation of watershed scientists, thanks to a major grant from the National Science Foundation that funds an intensive, interdisciplinary approach.

The NSF in 2009 awarded SIUC a $3.2 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship grant. SIUC’s IGERT grant was one of just 20 NSF funded from a pool of 412 applicants. The highly competitive grant funds a six-year effort aimed at educating up to 20 leading watershed scientists while they earn their doctorates at SIUC.

The program’s “classrooms” includes rivers and watersheds near the University and around the world. Such features are among the most complex systems in nature and have enormous impact on human life, for good and ill.

Nicholas Pinter, professor of geology and principal investigator on the project, said the Watershed Science and Policy program also involves SIUC researchers from educational psychology, forestry, agricultural economics, microbiology, and fisheries.

“The IGERT award is a demonstration that SIUC can compete at the highest levels of research and external funding in the country,” Pinter said. “In addition, the award is an important and practical tool for raising the profile of SIUC. We are receiving Ph.D. student applicants from top programs across the U.S.”

Equally importantly, Pinter said, faculty and university administrators see the SIUC IGERT booth at national meetings, ads in nationwide scientific publications, and see that SIUC has an IGERT program when University faculty contact colleagues to encourage student applications. 

“The IGERT raises the whole profile of SIUC in a wide variety of ways,” he said.

Plans call for three groups of students working as a team and conducting research toward earning their doctorate. The first cadre of students began working in spring 2010, with the second cohort starting this spring.

Each group will work in a target river basin of key interest, including the Cache River, Atchafalaya River, Middle Mississippi River and the Tisza River in Europe. In addition to classes and seminars, students also will perform internships with various government agencies and other organizations and all will take at least one extended, two-week tour of a foreign country to observe watershed management practices there, Pinter said.

So far, the first group of students has accomplished a huge amount in the time they’ve been at SIUC, Pinter said.

“They’ve organized and run a major symposium on Cache River research and management and they’ve studied and traveled watershed issues in Panama,” he said. “They’ve also now begun their team project that will be the keystone of the new interdisciplinary model of doctorate education.”

By the time they are finished, the students will be leaders in the field, studying floodplains, water resources, ecosystems, economics, public use and best management practices to protect and utilize these natural resources.

And IGERT is drawing top students from around the country to SIUC.

Kimberly Erndt, for example, is an IGERT doctoral student with research interests in aquatic ecology and its effects on land-use and management practices. Before coming to the University, she worked six years as an aquatic ecologist for Prairie Rivers Network, a non-profit organization, where she served as watershed organizer doing community outreach, education and planning. She also served as interim executive director and as a river restoration and habitat conservation specialist for the organization.

Erndt said she wants to protect water resources and wildlife, and that she pursued the IGERT program because it will help her understand both the science and the policy sides of this effort.

“I realized that there is a great need for scientists and policy makers that can speak both languages and work well with other professional fields in order to make informed effective environmental protection policies,” Erndt said. “The IGERT program was an ideal opportunity for me to have an interdisciplinary education that focused on watershed science and policy, and I’m very fortunate to be a part of the program.”

Erndt said working on the Cache River Basin has helped her gain insight into water systems that have been heavily altered by humans. Scientists and public policy makers consider its wetlands extremely important, and she and her fellow IGERT students hope to protect the resource for all stakeholders.

Amanda Nelson was a research assistant at North Carolina State University who earned her Master of Science degree in water science and worked for a county conservation district in Illinois and for the state of Kentucky’s Division of Water. She has two years of doctorate-level work in entomology and hopes to combine GIS and bio-assessment data to improve watershed management planning.

Nelson said she was having trouble finding the right doctoral program when she saw an advertisement for the IGERT program at SIUC.

“I was immediately attracted by the interdisciplinary emphasis of the IGERT program because I’m a firm believer that watershed issues cross all boundaries and affect all people,” Nelson said.

“All too often, professionals and professors get pigeon-holed into their narrow aspect of their particular field and either miss the big picture or fail to make a measurable difference in an issue. I applied immediately and was told that it was a very competitive program. That made me a little nervous, but I knew that I was a competitive candidate, so I had hope.”

Along with Pinter, SIUC faculty members who are co-investigators on the project include Lizette Chevalier, professor of civil and environmental engineering and acting associate dean of the College of Engineering; Christopher Lant, professor of geography and environmental resources; Matt Whiles, professor of zoology; and Sara Baer, associate professor of plant biology.

Chevalier said the IGERT approach to doctoral students, while demanding and anchored in scientific rigor, is more flexible than the traditional approach.

The students, immersed in a multi-disciplined team, defined their research projects and collaborations in a real-world environment.

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