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Salt life: Lumen Scholar explores salinity and growth in wetland ecosystems

Elon Lumen Scholar Mariana Kneppers ’18 is researching how changing global weather conditions might affect the future of native wetland plants.

Lumen Scholar Mariana Kneppers '18 with mentor Brant Touchette, professor of biology and environmental studies. 

By Sarah Collins '18

Growing up in Walnut Creek, California, marine ecosystems were a part of life for Mariana Kneppers ‘18. Her early interest in marine ecology has only expanded as the Elon senior majoring in biology and ecological science has honed her research skills and fine-tuned her interests.

Now a senior and a Lumen Scholar, Kneppers is focused on the East Coast as she researches how changing salinity and temperature are impacting wetland plants. Her research and plans for a career in the field of marine ecology have helped her land the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship earlier this year, with the award supporting exceptional students in the fields of natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

“I really wanted to look at projections for wetland regions in the frame of climate change,” Kneppers says. “As sea levels are rising and temperatures are changing, seawater is pushing inland, causing land plants to grow in higher salinity. That leaves us with the question of whether these ecosystems will be able to adapt.”

Kneppers has pursued this research as a recipient of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

The prospect of conducting original research is what initially attracted Kneppers to Elon as a high school senior. “I wanted the small school aspect of having relationships with professors and the resources to pursue undergraduate research,” says Kneppers. “Still, I never thought I’d have the opportunity to publish my research as an undergrad – I have Elon to thank for that.” 

Many do not recognize the important role that wetland ecosystems play on a global scale. These plant-rich pockets of land help to rid water of excess nutrients and pollutants before it eventually reaches the ocean, playing a vital part in freshwater rejuvenation and prevention of large-scale impacts to the coast like toxic algal blooms. Wetlands also help to prevent soil erosion and serve as hotbeds of life for a number of plant and animal species.

Knepper’s faculty mentor, Elon Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Brant Touchette, says this research has the potential to shed light on a topic that remains relatively unexplored. “Mariana’s research is taking a unique approach in that it considers temperature stress in wetland plants,” he says. “This is an understudied area, and there appears to be some synergy between thermotolerance (how well they withstand hot conditions) in these plants and their exposure to environmental salts.”

Kneppers’ main response variable investigated “fluorescence” measurements that describe how much light a plant uses for photosynthesis versus how much light the plant reflects. “The more stressed a plant is, the less light it can actually use for photosynthesis and thus the more light it reflects back,” she says.

Kneppers met Touchette during her sophomore year when she was enrolled in his Introduction to Environmental Science course. “At one point the class was discussing harmful algal blooms, which produce toxins that concentrate in shellfish and upon consumption, can cause severe neurological damage,” Kneppers says. “I asked Dr. Touchette a question about them, and after that class he asked me if I would be interested in doing research.”

Touchette says Kneppers has a passion for her research, despite its difficult nature. “Mariana is very dedicated to this research, which she approaches with great enthusiasm,” says Touchette. “Both greenhouse and field-based research can be labor intensive, yet she has never wavered on her commitment.”

This past summer, Kneppers participated in Elon’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience. She spent two weeks working diligently at North Carolina’s Outer Banks to collect extensive field data on three wetland species: the black needle rush (Juncus roemerianus), the saltmeadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) and the smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). She spent long days recording light and temperature measurements, as well as noting qualitative findings regarding the relationship between the plants and the water. During the remainder of the summer, Kneppers was on Elon’s campus, collecting data from plants in the greenhouse located behind the McMichael Science Center.

Kneppers spent the 2017 spring semester studying abroad in Turks and Caicos. Through a partnership with the School for Field Studies, she had the opportunity to conduct biological and environmental field sciences research by diving to collect data about the native sea cucumber.

During her time abroad, Kneppers received word that she had been selected as a 2017 recipient of Goldwater Scholarship. The 240 winners of the prestigious national award, which funds students conducting STEM research, were selected from a field of more than 1,300 students in the fields of natural sciences, mathematics and engineering. She is just the third Elon student to be awarded a Goldwater Scholarship.

Following graduation, Mariana intends to spend a year abroad conducting additional research before pursuing a doctorate in marine ecology. She says her experiences at Elon have prepared her to take on these future opportunities for growth. “It’s exciting to be contributing to something that I feel will actually have an impact,” Kneppers says. “The data needs to tell an important story, and I feel we’re discovering some interesting relationships.”

Owen Covington,
10/24/2017 1:50 PM