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Faculty and graduate students share thoughts about proposed vernal pools reserve at UC Merced

May 8, 2013

On April 29 and 30, members of the UC Natural Reserve System’s three-campus panel visited the proposed Vernal Pools-Grasslands Natural Reserve at UC Merced as part of the panel’s consideration of UC Merced’s application to join the system. The visitors heard from some of the researchers who use, or will use, the land adjacent to the campus.

Professor Stephen Hart was first to share his thoughts about the reserve with the visiting panel members from UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis and UC Berkeley.

“I’m excited about the possibility of the reserve as an asset in starting a field ecology program at UC Merced. There has only been one of me to do that, but with a reserve, we could start curriculum development that would teach how to sample a community and develop research questions about ecology,” he said. “The potential for a reserve here is extremely high.”

Natural sciences Professor Marilyn Fogel, who is also faculty director of UC Merced’s Environmental Analytical Laboratory, advised the panel that the EAL has a dozen high-end analytical instruments that can support research taking place on the reserve.

“This place lends itself to cross-disciplinary research, which UC Merced values. We need an area close by to teach basic ecological method,” adding that she is taking her Fundamentals of Ecology students out on the property, which is just steps away from their classrooms.

Assistant Professor Asmeret Behre has been taking classes out to study the proposed reserve since 2009. Her students learn about soil sciences, collecting core samples and visiting the lab to learn how to analyze the samples.

“It’s a great introductory experience,” said Behre, who added that having the land so close makes field work easy, especially because class enrollment has grown steadily.

Peggy O’Day, a founding university faculty member, took students out to the grasslands the first year there were students on campus, to collect soils cores.

“Doing it as an afternoon or Saturday lab is so accessible,” said O’Day, who has also used the lands to teach Fundamentals of Geology and other Earth Systems Science classes.

“The reserve will allow us to make a connection to nature,” said graduate student Chelsea Carey, pointing out that many UC Merced undergraduates come from urban centers in California. “Building that connectedness can help us grow pro-environmental behavior.”

She also noted that becoming part of the UC Natural Reserve System would help attract graduate students, a key goal of the university in coming years. Professor O’Day added that it would also aid in the recruiting of faculty members in such areas as environmental policy.

Perhaps the most innovative use for the proposed reserve was championed by Assistant Professor YangQuan Chen, with the School of Engineering.

He has laboratory devoted to unmanned aircraft, and proposed conducting research on personal remote sensing systems, including flying unmanned aerial vehicles over the land to map the vegetation so colleagues could study how rainfall amounts and other variables affect plant ecology on the reserve.

In fact, there are a number of opportunities to use the reserve in the work of UC Merced’s new Spatial Analysis and Research Center (SpARC), too.

SNRI Director Roger Bales stressed to the panel that this project is a partnership between UC Merced’s departments of Facilities and Physical Planning and university faculty members who see tremendous benefit in having a reserve adjacent to the campus.

The faculty members said there are many opportunities to use the reserve in social science, humanities and arts courses, from writing and literature to cultural anthropology and cognitive science, as well. The skills that students would learn in observation and description are transferable across many areas of study.