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Meet the researchers: Clark HEROs tackle local environmental issues

Interview with Professor Gil Pontius, Jeff Malanson, Nicholas Malizia, Jamie Mohr, Patrick Morris, Jessica Schifano and Hua Wang
The HERO program provides funding for undergraduate research focusing on environmental issues in the Worcester area. In a recent interview, Professor Gil Pontius and 2002 HERO fellows Jeff Malanson '03, Nicholas Malizia '05, Jamie Mohr '05, Patrick Morris '03, and Jessica Schifano (WPI '05) talked about their research goals. A sixth HERO Fellow, Hua Wang (visiting Clark from the College of the Atlantic), was unable to be present at the interview. However, her Flash presentation provides a fun introduction to ecology and the geographic information system software that the HERO researchers use. You can also read her HERO project proposal. Jeff Malanson is featured in the October 2002 issue of Natural New England, a magazine dedicated to science and exploration of the Northeast.

Gil, can you provide some background on the HERO Program?

Gil: HERO stands for Human-Environment Regional Observatory. This is a long-term research program that has four sites: Clark University, Pennsylvania State University, Kansas State University, and the University of Arizona. We've recruited some of the top undergraduates as HERO fellows to carry out year-round research on a variety of human-environment interactions in Central Massachusetts, with a specific focus on land use, water issues, and climate change. The overall goal is to establish a long term data archive such that even researchers many decades from now can come back to the data archive and have a complete record of land change, water quality change, and exposure to toxic materials for any population in central Massachusetts.

We're very well integrated with a variety of community groups in Worcester. We're regularly being called by the mayor's office to make presentations on brownfields [abandoned industrial sites]. We're working closely with community groups concerning water quality issues. We're connected with the Massachusetts Audubon Society and various local watershed associations, and even the Congress of Lakes and Ponds in Massachusetts.

HERO is a unique opportunity for undergraduates to get involved in professional-level science. It's an opportunity for students to learn science at a level that you don't learn in the classroom. In the classroom you learn conventional scientific techniques, but here we apply those techniques in collaboration with other scientists. The fellows learn the complicated issues of functioning as a professional scientist. We present our research at professional meetings, such as those of the American Association of Geographers. The goal for every HERO fellow is to carry out a year-long research project, and then to have that culminate in a written, oral and poster presentation.

Can you explain what's involved in the application process?

Any Clark student can apply to be a HERO fellow. We also have spots for non-Clark students. For example, this year we have two students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). All HERO fellows receive a stipend for summer research.

Another purpose of the HERO program is to connect a wide variety of departments on campus. Even though the focus is on human-environment research, we have one fellow (Jeff Malanson) from the history department. We're very interested in making deeper connections with other departments such as biology, physics, political science, and IDCE-a wide variety of departments that intersect with looking at how humans use the landscape.

The application process begins in the spring semester. Once the fellows (usually about six) are selected, research starts in the summer and continues through the spring semester of the following academic year, culminating in final presentations and products. Many students use their HERO work as a capstone to their experience here at Clark. Many of the students incorporate their HERO research with an honor's thesis. But that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. This year we have fellows who are rising sophomores.

Do the fellows do independent projects, or is it collaborative work?

Both. Each HERO fellow has a project that is his or her own. But also we work as a group to create the data archive. Some of the individual projects are quite related. I encourage the fellows to work together, because they have different strengths. When they work together, they can learn from each other. I think that's where much of the learning goes on.

Jeff, can you tell us how you became involved in the HERO program, and a little about your research?

Jeff: This is my second year as a HERO fellow. Back in high school I was in the environmental club and interested in watersheds and things like that. I got an email from Gil about summer research opportunities. It seemed interesting. Last year I concentrated on land use change modeling, learned about that and some geography, and learned some computer programming. I wanted to do it again because I felt there was a lot more that I could do in terms of a useful project and what I could learn. I'm actually part of an expanded REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) project that is going on between four universities as part of HERO: Clark, Penn State, the University of Arizona and Kansas State University. As part of that I've been working on vulnerability assessment for Central Massachusetts, dealing with the coping ability of people in the region. It's basically a matter of working with Census population data to gain an understanding of the vulnerabilities of people.

What do you mean by vulnerabilities?

Vulnerability has to do with how well people can cope with a natural or technological hazard, such as a huge storm, nuclear plant meltdown, or a chemical leak.

How do you use the census data?

We map out the location and quantity of what are typically called vulnerable socio-economic groups, such as females, minorities, single mothers, people who are young and people who are very old, people who aren't tied to the are by owning a house or land-they're just renting. People with lower incomes.

Jamie, you just finished your freshman year at WPI. How did you get involved and what are your thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of doing research as an undergraduate?

Jamie: I applied to the HERO project because I thought there would be opportunities that you couldn't get in a typical semester course. Thus far, that's been the case. It's been an advantage because you start finding your niche. I can't think of a disadvantage because you find out what you don't like.

Do you know yet what you're planning to major in?

I'm going to major in Environmental Science and Policy and Geography.

Am I correct that WPI doesn't have a geography department?

No, they don't. I've transferred. I'm a Clark student now.

What is your research focus?

I haven't focused on an individual project yet because right now I'm collaborating on the vulnerability assessment project that Jeff is working on.

Patrick, how did you get involved in the HERO Project and what year are you at Clark?

Patrick: I'm going to be a senior. I got involved in HERO because of my work through the geography department. I had met Gil and Professor Ke Chen. Professor Turner is my advisor. They all recommended the HERO Project.

When I came to Clark, I figured I'd be the last person to be doing research, because I was lazy, I wasn't going to take anything seriously. Why do a summer here when you could just get a job waitering or something? But I found that it's been a completely rewarding experience. Because it's not something where you can be lazy, because it's not something where you go in, make your money, and go home. You think about it when you're not around because it's important. Something you're working on is going to affect somebody else.

All our projects aren't just for the sake of doing projects. The information we compile is going to help somebody down the road. Even if it's just so that people can look there and use the data that we collected for their own purpose. Because of that it makes it worthwhile. It's a much different working environment than I've ever been used to. It's treated as a professional job where you come in, do your business, and at the end of the day you leave. It's something that for me has been very rewarding in that aspect.

So what has been the particular focus of your work?

My work has yet to be completely defined. But it seems that I'm going to be working on a land use model to discover what areas are best suited for conservation using different criteria such as cost, how much developers want that piece of land, and what is actually on that land that we're trying to conserve. Using those different attributes discovering what lands are best for the resources that need to be protected. I'm hoping to develop a model that can be used not only in the HERO area, but in other areas as well if the proper data is available.

Jessica, you're another WPI student?

Jessica: Yes, I'll be a sophomore. I'm double majoring in Biotechnology and Public Policy. I was interested in the HERO project because one of my main biological interests is in the interaction between people and chemicals--the effects on people, especially hormonally.

That's a big issue now.

Yes. But right now I'm working with Jamie and Jeff on the vulnerability assessment of Central Massachusetts. I'm assessing the technological hazards. What I do is get data about different chemical sites, like Superfund and TRI sites so we can put them on the map and see what's close to people. Hopefully during the year I'll be able to pursue the risk analysis of chemicals on disease.

Are the sites you're looking at left over from past industry, or are they current ones as well?

Most of them are sites that have been either shut down and supposedly cleaned or just shut down, and some of them are working sites like gas stations and car dealerships. Even those are considered technological hazards because they might be a source of gasoline leaks into the ground water. There are a whole bunch of different things you wouldn't think of that are considered technological hazards.

Where do you find this information?

There's a lot of information on the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) web site.

Nicholas, you're a Clark student. Tell me a little bit about how you ended up getting involved.

Nicholas: When I declared geography, Professor Turner became my advisor, and he spoke highly of the program. I applied in the hope of getting research experience, which I have.

So what is your piece of this project?

Right now I'm working on water quality issues and developing a quality assurance project plan for the Tatnuck Brook watershed here in Worcester. My final research project will hopefully have something to do with that.

What kind of data are you collecting for that?

We're looking at the location of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as sedimentation, that impact water quality.

Can anyone else comment about what they see as the advantages and disadvantages of doing research as an undergraduate?

Jeff: This being my second year doing this, I've been engaged in the undergraduate research experience for over a year now. The advantage is that you definitely learn a lot. I'm a history major and I'm learning a lot outside the field I normally study. But even if I was a geography major, I feel that I would be learning a lot more than I would have just inside the classroom. Beyond that, you learn a lot of practical things, too. You really learn what it's like to collaborate on a large-scale research project, both the good aspects and the bad aspects of that.

I think the only drawback of doing research as an undergraduate is that it's not the type of thing you should take lightly. It's a big commitment if you say you're going to do it and it's going to be a large-scale project that's going to take a whole year. It's not the type of thing you can say, yeah, I'll do it and then do just a lackluster job on it and expect to earn praise for it. You've got to go in and put in your time on it. You've got to put some thought into it, too. But I think, as Patrick was saying, you get a lot more out of it because of the fact that you're putting in a lot of time and effort.


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Hua Wang, Patrick Morris, Jessica Schifano, Jeff Malanson, Jamie Mohr and  Nicholas Malizia
Clockwise from top left: Hua Wang, Patrick Morris, Jessica Schifano, Jeff Malanson, Jamie Mohr and Nicholas Malizia
 Doing something worthwhile QuickTime
 The advantages of participating in research QuickTime

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