Campus News

From atoms to ecosystems

SREL researcher collects invertebrates
SREL researcher Paul Stankus collects aquatic invertebrates from a Savannah River Site stream as part of a study to examine the transfer of contaminants between organisms in the food chain.

$2.6 million federal stimulus grant will bring new jobs, research projects to SREL

A $2.6 million federal stimulus grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will bring new jobs to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, the UGA research facility near Aiken, S.C.

The grant for seven new and five continuing research projects will create 12 new full-time jobs and allow approximately 16 UGA research professionals and technicians to retain their full-time positions.

For more than 50 years, SREL has pursued basic and applied research at multiple levels of ecological organization, from atoms to ecosystems at the Savannah River Site, a U.S. Department of Energy facility. SREL also provides opportunities for graduate and undergraduate research training as well as service to the community through environmental outreach. SREL has played an essential role in DOE’s stewardship and management of the Savannah River Site, researching all ecological aspects of site operations.

Over the past four to five years, as the research priorities of the DOE changed and funding to UGA decreased, the number of employees at SREL decreased from a peak of 200 in 2004-2005 to 50 this year—a 70 percent decline. This new funding will allow SREL to begin to rebuild its research programs.

“Importantly, the federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act means SREL can hire new research professionals who will expand our capability to bring in new sources of external funding, replacing the stimulus funding once it ends,” said Carl Bergmann, SREL co-director and the grant’s principal investigator. “We’re also pleased that SREL’s former employees will be eligible for the new jobs that this grant will provide.”

“SREL’s new research projects will further enable DOE to understand and address site impacts on all levels, while also contributing to the greater scientific community,” said Ken McLeod, SREL co-director.

Most of the research projects will provide important knowledge about the behavior of environmental contaminants from human activity, especially in aquatic environments like the rivers, streams and ponds of the Savannah River Site.

One project is a study of long-lived reptiles, such as turtles and alligators, by conservation biologist Tracey Tuberville and ecologist David Scott. The researchers will look at how these reptiles, which live 40 to 70 years and eat other vertebrates as well as invertebrates, may be the best animals to study when assessing risks associated with long-term contaminant exposure.

In another project, ecologists J. Vaun McArthur and Dean Fletcher will examine how and to what extent trace metals introduced to streams and rivers by human activity, such as coal burning power plants, put organisms at risk. Their study will look at what an organism eats and what eats the organism, to get a complete picture of the aquatic food web and provide models for what happens to those contaminants further up the food chain—in birds and mammals.

A collaborative project between SREL biologist Larry Bryan and colleagues at Eastern Illinois University will study what happens to the environmental contaminants, including metals, radionuclides and organic solvents that have been released to a stream and pond system on the DOE’s Savannah River Site. What the scientists learn about bioaccumulation of contaminants will inform models used in assessment of the risk these contaminants pose to those at the top of the food chain, including humans.