Student Spotlight: Julia Graham ’16

14 Dec

Julia Graham ’16 has a lot going on. She is an environmental science and policy (ES&P) major, a sustainable food concentrator, and potentially a Latin American studies minor. Graham is interested in how indigenous cultures and the environment in Latin America have been impacted by colonialism.

When JGraham.jpgshe transferred to Smith from Warren Wilson College her sophomore year, she decided to change directions, and instead of continuing to focus on Latin American studies, she jumped with two feet into ES&P. This jump was guided by Graham’s experiences during her year off, when she worked on two farms, including one associated with the Heifer International Program.

Julia Graham has undertaken a range of environmental work during her time at Smith. Her sustainable food capstone course has her scoping out the potential for a biogas reactor at Smith. Her special studies with professor Bob Newton (geosciences) involves exploring the relationship between vegetation, environmental history, and geochemistry. Graham even used to coordinate the House Eco Reps. She currently works as a MacLeish intern at CEEDS and as an intern for ES&P.

As part of fulfilling her sustainable food concentration requirements Graham went to Ecuador to work in a permaculture biosphere with Third Millennium Alliance. Since then she has earned a permaculture design certificate and even designed a permaculture garden in her parent’s backyard.

After Smith, Graham would like to work with a trail crew. She built trails in Alaska and the Colorado Rockies during her junior and senior years of high school, and she would love to continue the work after college. Ultimately, she would like to wind up in environmental education.

The one piece of wisdom Graham would like to pass on is how important it is while you are a student at Smith to realize that there is life beyond the Smith campus. Take a step back from academics, get off campus, see what is happening in the rest of the world.

– Brittany Bennett is a senior Engineering Science major and hails from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She hopes to educate engineers on how to best create a more sustainable world.

Marking Up MacLeish

4 Nov

This past week MacLeish has been treated to a bit of spiffing up. If you’ve ever walked the trails there, you surely noticed some colorful trail markers guiding your way. But what happens when these markers start to spend a little too much time on the path? The trees start to grow over these helpful hints, and eventually they get to become one with the tree or fall down, never to be seen or heard from again.

Not the markers at MacLeish though! With the help of CEEDS interns Shelby and Liz, as well as Lucia Delbene, a visiting biologist from Uruguay, the trails at MacLeish are staying well delineated and magnificent!  To keep the trails going these trail rescuers had a lovely walk and spent the afternoon prying out the nails holding the markers up. These markers were put back in, this time with a little more breathing room, to giving the tree some space to grow. What’s left now are freshly marked trails; feel free to check their work by having a walk-through at MacLeish.

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Shelby (l) hammering in and Lucia (r) removing trail markers.


Shelby(l) and Lucia (r) just being photogenic professionals.


Lucia (l) and Liz (r) are on the move for some more maintenance.

-Liz Nagy (’18) is a double major in environmental science and Japanese, and hopes this will take her to some fun places in life. She is passionate about invasive species, avocados, Japanese culture and wolves (in no particular order).

Cider Pressing with CEEDS

2 Nov

Over Family Weekend this year students and their families gathered outside the Campus Center to celebrate Fall with CEEDS faculty, staff and student interns by pressing cider, tasting apples, eating freshly made cider donuts and sampling cheese. Attendees got to press their own fresh cider the old fashioned way via hand-cranked cider presses. More apples were consumed at the heirloom apple tasting table where seven very different local apple varieties were available for tasting. Dining Services partnered with us to offer some tasty aged local cheeses to pair with the apples.

Click through the gallery to see some photos from the event.

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– Brittany Bennett is a senior Engineering Science major hailing from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She hopes to educate engineers on how to best create a more sustainable world.

Trying My Hand at Scientific Journalism

6 Oct

This summer, as I wrote about in a previous post, I helped the Bellemare lab with research surrounding the effects of hemlock tree decline in western Massachusetts. The research projects going on there inspired me to begin working on an article concerning their work. I hope that this article will shed light on the environmental issues going on in our own Western Massachusetts backyards as well as the hard work being done by researchers such as Michelle Jackson ‘15, Elizabeth Besozzi ‘16, Anna George ‘17, and Aliza Fassler ‘17. Furthermore, I hope to communicate the importance of research facilities such as Smith College’s MacLeish Field Station, where much of the research pertaining to hemlock forests by the Bellemare lab takes place.

I am passionate about both writing and science, especially ecology, and as I work to complete the requirements for both the biological science and English majors here at Smith, scientific writing is one of the career paths that I am considering. I am convinced that clear and effective scientific journalism- the communication of scientific data into colloquial terms without compromising scientific integrity or complexities- is the key to creating a more informed populace. Only then can decisions be made, individually and communally, that truly benefit and fulfill the needs of both people and the environment.

I hope to have the article completed and submitted for publication at some point this fall and will post again with an update!


-Isabella Fielding ‘17 is a junior from Warwick, RI. She is majoring in biological sciences and English and aspires to be a scientific writer.

Research in the Mill River

18 Sep

Hi, my name is Mia and I am a junior at Smith College. I am studying biology with a concentration in cells, physiology and development. In my free-time I really enjoy tutoring/teaching younger children in mathematics and science-related fields. I am primarily interested in doing research in neurophysiology; however, this summer I was fortunate enough to work on a project that is outside of my regular studies.


Smith is proposing to install a sluice gate at Paradise Pond in efforts to find a more cost-efficient method to dredge the pond. This summer, I worked with Marney Pratt and Molly Peek to investigate whether the sluice gate will harm the biodiversity and abundance of the macroinvertebrates in the Mill River. I was able to use the skills I developed from former biology classes to determine whether the river is in good health using diversity and abundance as criteria.

We collected macroinvertebrates using two methods: D net kick sampling and Hester-Dendy substrate sampling. Both methods were extremely new to me and I enjoyed familiarizing myself with something I had not yet even heard about. Both methods often required canoeing and wading in the Mill River, which was also an entirely new experience for me. After spending a few weeks taking samples and collecting the macroinvertebrates, we preserved and identified them with dichotomous keys. This was important in order to determine the diversity and abundance of each genus. We have yet to finish identifying the macroinvertebrates; however, so far we have found that each site that we tested along the Mill River is relatively diverse. Though I didn’t engage in research in an area where I am most comfortable, I have really appreciated the opportunity to learn so many new and interesting things.

-Mia Ndama, ’17 is  from Indianapolis, Indiana and lives in Northrop House. She is a biology major concentrating in cells, physiology, and development. She enjoys playing badminton and teaching herself new instruments in her free time.

Exploring Water Flow and Sediment Deposition at Paradise

24 Aug

Hi! My name is Lizzie Sturtevant (’18), one of several students and faculty working on the Mill River Monitoring Project. I am majoring in geoscience and have an interest in hydrology and resource management. I have been working with geoscience professor Robert (Bob) Newton along with Marcia Rojas (18’), Maya Domeshek (18’), and Lynn Watts (17’) to examine water flow and sediment deposition in Paradise Pond and the Mill River during different weather events.


With support from the Center for the Environment(CEEDS), the Mill River Monitoring Project has brought together students, faculty, and staff with a variety of backgrounds and interests in the search for an alternative method of sediment removal in Paradise Pond that will preserve the health of the river and save the school money while making use of the natural hydraulic power of the Mill River.

As suggested by its name, Paradise Pond is a landmark cherished by members of the Smith community and town of Northampton for its scenic relief and space for boating activities. A resource so central to the scenery on campus does not come without the cost of proper maintenance. Every 8-10 years, Smith College pays to have Paradise Pond dredged to remove accumulated sediment. This expensive process involves the excavation and transportation of the sediment to a landfill.

When looking across the mounds of mud and dead leaves that have filled several sections of Paradise Pond, you may have wondered what causes this accumulation of sediment. Naturally, rivers have a balance of sediment inflow and outflow; however, the construction of a dam such as the one used to create Paradise Pond can disrupt this balance by lowering water velocities, thus enabling the deposition and accumulation of sediment (Batuca et. al, 2000).

Sediment In Pond at 1.49.03 PM
A birds-eye view of the sediment in Paradise Pond.

It may be possible to use the natural power of the Mill River to remove this sediment by operating the sluice gate that is located at the base of the campus dam. This project is exploring the possibility of opening the gate during events of high flow to hydraulically erode the sediment and carry it through the gate, ultimately flushing it downstream and into the natural flow of river sediment.

Prior to releasing significant amounts of sediment through the sluice gate, it is important that we know the potential effects of depositing this sediment downstream. To evaluate these risks of contamination, we have taken sediment cores from Paradise Pond and sites downstream to compare their composition. We have been analyzing these cores for contaminants such as mercury, lead, and phosphorous, which could affect the ecosystems downstream if found at higher concentrations in the pond.

RiverRayThe “River Ray” which we use to measure water velocity and discharge.

Laboratory instructor Marney Pratt (biological sciences) has been working with Molly Peek (18′) to measure the invertebrate diversity of the river in order to study the effect of sediment release on the biological communities downstream of the pond. If you have been following the [CEEDS] blog at all, you have already heard from Molly about some of the macroinvertebrates they have found!

Professor Newton, Maya, Marcia, Lyn and I have established four reference sites downstream of Paradise Pond to observe and record sediment deposition following the opening of the sluice gate. Now that we have established our baseline data and characterized the sediment in the pond, we are prepared to test opening the sluice gate to see how the sediment will be deposited downstream. We will keep you updated on our findings as we move forward with our research! 

-Lizzie Sturtevant (’18) lives in Morrow House and plays on Smith’s lacrosse team. She grew up in the Pioneer Valley and now lives in Leyden Massachusetts- only a 35 minute drive from campus. Lizzie fell in love with geology when she studied abroad in New Zealand during her junior year of high school.

Reference Cited:

Batuca, Dan G., and Jan M. Jordaan. Silting and Desilting of Reservoirs. Rotterdam, Netherlands: A.A. Balkema, 2000. Print.

Field Work on the Mill River

17 Aug

It’s Molly Peek (’18) again! I am working on the Mill River Project with Marney Pratt and Mia Ndama (’17). We are using different macroinvertebrate sampling methods to measure the health of the Mill River. A typical day of sampling for me involves both field and lab work. In the field, the first thing we do is deploy a Hester-Dendy sampler, which is a long-term macroinvertebrate sampling method. The Hester-Dendy is a series of small, pressed wood plates attached to a screw. This sampler is then secured to a cinder block. Three cinder blocks with one Hester-Dendy each are placed in a line across the stream and left for 4 weeks. Macroinvertbrates will start to live on the Hester-Dendy, and when we remove the device we will have an entire community of animals to sample.


After I place the Hester-Dendy, I use another sampling method, kick net sampling, to collect a sample of macroinvertebrates by disturbing the substrate, causing them to float into my net. I do this several times in one section of river and then take all of my collected samples back to the lab so I can catalog the results.

In the lab, I identify each individual to its genus, and then preserve it for future reference. I use these identifications to calculate water quality and stream health based on the number and type of invertebrates found in my samples. We find many different types of organisms, but some of the most important are mayfly, stonefly, and caddisfly larva. Anyone who is interested in flyfishing might recognize these bugs because they are important bait, but we are interested in them because they are groups that are sensitive to pollution and are good indicators of stream health.

#2(Caddisfly, or Trichoptera, larva)

The identifications can be tough sometimes, because the animals can be quite small and difficult to distinguish, even under a microscope, but we are currently working on a dichotomous key that will make identification easier in the future. This key will be used in BIO 155 when the class has their unit on macroinvertebrate sampling, and is specially made for the Mill river and for students who do not have experience identifying macroinvertebrates. It has also been pretty fun to make!

-Molly lives in King House and plays on Smith’s field hockey team. She grew up in New Jersey and now lives in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

A Day in the Lab

6 Aug

Hello! It’s Maya Domeshek of the Paradise Pond Sediment Sluicing Project again.

Last time I told you a bit about lab work and lab machinery.  But today I’d like to tell you about the other thing I’ve been learning this summer—Database Building.  As I’m sure you know, almost everything in our lives involves data management.  A good example is the college itself.  It has to keep track of people (students, faculty, staff) and money (salaries, tuition, aid) and also institutional information like grades and classes.  When there are so many different kinds of data connected in so many different ways—students have classes, grades, teachers, and tuition and teachers have classes, students, and salaries—a simple spreadsheet is not sufficient.  You build a database.

The Pond Project does not require anything so complicated as the college’s Banner Web system—which is good because I’ve only just started learning about Databases—but it’s just complicated enough that a flat file database won’t work.  I first became interested in databases when I noticed that we were having trouble keeping track of all of the sediment data we were collecting.  As I explained last time, most of my work has been determining the metal concentrations in the pond sediment.  Our method involves extracting the metals by digesting the sediment samples with acid and then analyzing the liquid with the ICP-OES (Inductively Coupled Plasma spectrometry- Optical Emission Spectroscopy).  In order to check our method, we have been running multiple extractions on some sediment cores to see how variable our extraction process is.  We have also been doing multiple ICP analyses on some extracts to see how variable the ICP is.  Unfortunately, the database we were using didn’t have a way to distinguish these different kinds of replicates, which made it hard for us to quantify the different kinds of error in our procedure.

This struck me as a problem worth fixing, so Bob (i.e. Professor Newton my research advisor and the new director of CEEDS) has kindly let me take some time out of my regular work to learn how to program a database in his preferred database system—Filemaker Pro.  I finished a first version of it last week in which the database could at least tell the difference between samples that had been extracted repeatedly and samples that had been analyzed repeatedly.  The next step is to get the database to average the metal concentrations of the different kinds of replicates and calculate their standard deviations.  That has required me to start learning about relational databases—databases that can associate a record in one table with one or more records in another one.  In our college database example, there might be a table with a list of students and one with a list of classes but each student can have multiple classes and each class can have multiple students so you might want to organize it as a relational database.

Anyway, once I had my first version of the database up and running with all the data in it, I could finally look at all of the metal data we’d been collecting.  And when I did, there was a new problem glaring right back at me—whenever we ran the same extract of a sample through the ICP and then did it again some time later, the later analysis would have a lower metal concentration than the first.  This meant that the metal concentration in our extract solutions was going down over time, probably because the metals were precipitating out.  With the new knowledge from the database, we can now revise our method to keep a consistent and small amount of time between our extracts and analyses.  Then we will have more accurate data on the metal content of the pond sediments so that we can get our permits and begin experimenting with sediment sluicing.

Also I now have a question for the chemistry department—why is it that some metals precipitate out of an acidic solution faster than others?

-Maya Domeshek ’18 has just finished her work on the Paradise Pond Project as a CEEDS-supported Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow with Professor Robert Newton.  She has not yet settled on a major, but in her free time she enjoys dancing, dance teaching, and sharing a meal with friends and family.

Messing About in Boats (Or in the Lab)

30 Jul

Hello, Internet! I’m Maya Domeshek (’18) and I’m working on the Paradise Pond Sediment Sluicing Project.  I’ve been working on it since last fall, and it’s been one of the great pleasures of my first year at Smith that I’ve been able to spend time on the pond in all seasons and weathers.  I especially enjoyed collecting sediment samples this fall (who doesn’t like to get their hands covered in mud?) and traversing the pond and the Mill River in a row boat, a pontoon boat, and a canoe.  As the River Rat in The Wind in the Willows would say “There is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing.”

But Geology isn’t all field trips; it’s also lab work and data analysis.  So I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you a little about what we do in the lab and the wonderful laboratory machines that Marc Anderson tends and explains with such love.  Much of my research work this past year has been focused on analyzing the sediment samples we’ve collected in order to to determine their metal content.  We would like to know, for example, if  they have high lead concentrations so that we don’t wash anything poisonous downstream.  Don’t worry—so far none of our sediment has dangerous levels of lead.

Maya in the field.

When I analyze a sediment sample for metal, I take a few grams of sediment and heat them with nitric and hydrochloric acid and then burn off the organics with peroxide.  This pulls most of the metal into solution.  I then dilute the acidic water and soil solution to a known volume and measure the concentration of metal in that solution.  Once I know the concentration of metal in a known volume, I can calculate the total amount of metal in that known volume and thus the total amount in the few grams of sediment I started with.

My favorite part of this process is that I get to measure the concentration of metals in the sediment using the lab’s ICP-OES (Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectrometer).  This machine takes a small amount of a sample and heats it up hotter than the surface of the sun.  It then measures the intensity of light the atoms in the sample emit at their characteristic wavelengths.  Based on these intensity measurements, it can calculate the concentration.

There are many other things do in the lb and many other fascinating instruments to do them with.  My fellow student researcher Lizzie often works with the Hydra C, which measures mercury using atomic absorption (not emission).  Lyn has been looking at the changing chemistry of the water over the course of a storm, so she often uses the IC which measures the concentration of ions like nitrate and sulfate.  And Marcia has been determining the size makeup of the sediment, which actually only requires sieving.

I suppose that’s enough information about lab procedures and machines for now.  But, it really is amazing to think about how much thought and work that went into creating the analytic tools we get to use.  Check back next time to hear about data analysis.

-Maya Domeshek ’18 is currently working on the Paradise Pond Project as a CEEDS-supported Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow with Professor Robert Newton.  She has not yet settled on a major, but in her free time she enjoys dancing, dance teaching, and sharing a meal with friends and family.

Researching on the Mill River

29 Jul

I’m Molly Peek ’18 and I am working with biology lab instructor Marney Pratt and geosciences Professor Bob Newton on the Mill River Monitoring Project this summer. While the majority of the project is geology based, Marney and I look at the ecological effects of the changing hydrology and sedimentation of the river. It’s a great research project that involves a lot of wading (and sometimes swimming) in streams and looking at bugs and mussels!


The majority of this project involves testing the health of the stream to see if there are any drastic changes after a new sluicing method is tried on the Paradise pond dam. We use water quality and Shannon Diversity indexes to measure stream health by the amount and type of macroinvertebrates found living in the stream before and after the sluicing has begun. Because some invertebrates are more tolerant to environmental change and water quality than others, we look to see if there is a good mix of hearty and sensitive macroinvertebrates in a sample to formulate the health of the stream.

This summer, we are using two methods of sampling for these animals. The first is kick net sampling, which is used widely in stream health research and in Smith biology classes. The other method uses Hester-Dendy samplers, which is a longer-term method of sampling.

While this data is being used to assess the impact of a new method of dredging, it is also being used to help the Smith biology department. When the invertebrates are sampled, they are identified as accurately as possible and put into a key that will be used by students to help them do the same sampling and identification in class.

We are also taking surveys on the density and type of freshwater mussels found in the river as another indicator of stream health. Most of the mussel species found in the Mill River are stable and long-lived, so they are good indicators of the history of the stream’s health.

-Molly lives in King House and plays on Smith’s field hockey team. She grew up in New Jersey and now lives in the Green Mountains of Vermont!


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