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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Summer intern Ellen Weinheimer shares experience at HARC

Ellen Weinheimer

Summer intern gleaned experience and knowledge during her time at HARC.

Blog written by Ellen Weinheimer

The pressure to find a job after graduation increases daily for any college student. Some students enter college with a set career path in mind while others, like myself, start out unsure of which path to choose. At some point, however, the switch flips, and we suddenly realize what it is we are meant to do. Though a college education is invaluable, sitting in a classroom for hours each day and in the library for hours each night will not lead to this realization. This is why internships are so important. It takes trial and error experimentation to determine where we will be happy in the future. This coming year, I will be a junior biology major at Washington University in St. Louis. In trying to solidify and embrace my growing interest in ecology and conservation, I jumped on the opportunity to work with HARC this summer.

The majority of my work has involved updating invasive species profiles initially created in a collaborative effort between HARC and the Galveston Bay Estuary Program. These profiles include physical descriptions of the species as well as documentation of their spread, socioeconomic impact, and potential ecological threat. The project focuses on the threat of invasive species to the Lower Galveston Bay Watershed, consisting of 7 Texas counties: Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Fort Bend, and Montgomery. The entire watershed extends past Dallas, but it is especially important to understand how invasive species close to Galveston Bay could potentially impact coastal wetlands and the bay area. The introduction of a non-native species can negatively impact the health of the physical environment, local biodiversity, water quality, and even some of our valuable food sources.

Ecological research is perhaps more important now than ever before. One hugely important reason why is because many scientists believe we are entering a sixth mass extinction. This is largely due to the human actions that have altered ecosystems and stressed native species. The explosive growth of certain invasive species in the U.S. is also due to human activities. In addition to climate change and the encroachment of urban, industrial, and agricultural society onto previously undeveloped land, we have expanded trade and quickened transport between countries, making the introduction of non-native species to new areas not only possible, but likely. The consequences of introducing a non-native species into a new area range from none at all to severe economic losses or the extinction of an endemic species. Ballast water, the plant trade, and aquarium releases are some of the most common methods of introduction for invasive species, and industries as well as members of the public can have a hand in preventing their spread.

Living close to already stressed habitats, the wetlands of Galveston Bay, it is especially important to be conscious of the efforts required to preserve and protect the integrity of the surrounding land and waters. Closely monitoring species composition in and around Galveston Bay is an integral element of any long-term plan to ensure proper management of the watershed and preservation of ecosystem health. Seeing how the research directly works into these management decisions, specifically within HARC’s water program, is what made my work especially interesting. Researchers like Erin Kinney and Stephanie Glenn work full-time on projects within the water program, dedicating their time to wetland conservation, groundwater research, and watershed protection (among other important projects). Their ability to take valuable research and use it to both educate and collaborate with the public has allowed necessary policy and meaningful conservation efforts to be implemented.

I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Stephanie and Erin recently to hear about how their educational and professional backgrounds led them to HARC, hoping to gain some wisdom to take with me back to school. It was reassuring to learn that even though they have found their calling, their career paths were not clear cut at first. For a time, Erin thought an Art History major was in her future, and Stephanie took time after college, where she graduated with a degree in Math, to work as a coder. I asked them to explain some of their current projects, and Erin gave me a brief introduction to wetland mitigation and the Galveston Bay Report Card while Stephanie detailed the Double Bayou Watershed Protection Plan. Erin has worked with wetlands for years, and with the mitigation project, she has gotten to look at how changes in permitting have affected Galveston Bay wetlands over time. Alternatively, with the Galveston Bay Report Card, she gets to work with the public to publish updated information about the health of Galveston Bay. Stephanie similarly is working closely with the public on the Double Bayou project to analyze data and establish effective management practices for the watershed. It is inspiring to see that their work is resulting in real, positive changes in wetland and watershed protection, but what I gleaned from these conversations above all else was the passion behind the projects. Erin and Stephanie exemplify the trend within HARC of merging passion with hard work and a whole-hearted pursuit of knowledge to build on sustainability goals. Though my summer at HARC will soon be over, I am highly motivated to continue on with my education knowing the practical value of these ideals and that the work being done here will continue to have a significant impact on the greater Houston region for many years to come.