Fellowships help graduate student trace carbon cycling in salt marsh

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State meteorology graduate student Jesus Ruiz-Plancarte loves hands-on research. Since 2013, he’s been able to do just that with the help of several prestigious fellowships.

Ruiz-Plancarte conducts research on a salt marsh along the Virginia coastline, focusing on the total photosynthetic production of carbon-based compounds in the ecosystem. Since photosynthesis involves the creation of sugars from carbon dioxide by plants, tracing the carbon cycle throughout the plants in a salt marsh ecosystem is a key facet of this particular line of research.

“I’m calculating how much carbon is being exchanged by the ecosystem with the atmosphere, otherwise known as net ecosystem exchange (NEE),” Ruiz-Plancarte said. “With the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increasing and with sea level rising, measuring how much carbon dioxide can be taken in by coastal ecosystems is important.”

The site where Ruiz-Plancarte conducts his research is part of the Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research (VCR/LTER) project. He and other researchers working with the VCR/LTER study the ways in which environmental changes affect the local landscape.

“A healthy, productive marsh provides various ecosystem services that benefit humanity, such as nutrient regulation, fishery support and, most importantly, shoreline erosion protection, which are the crux of wetland studies,” he said.

Both Ruiz-Plancarte and the VCR/LTER aim to study the ways in which environmental changes affect the local landscape. For Ruiz-Plancarte, this means analyzing how much one of the marsh’s plants, Spartina alterniflora, assimilates carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that can potentially be stored in the soil through a process called terrestrial sequestration. This both decreases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and increases soil quality through added carbon. This process of absorbing carbon dioxide and sequestering carbon, plays an important role in controlling the levels of the carbon dioxide that are increasing in the atmosphere.

The salt marsh ecosystem is also highly affected by tides and Ruiz-Plancarte studies the way in which they may limit the amount of carbon dioxide that the plants can absorb. Ruiz-Plancarte has found that inundation can reduce the carbon assimilation by half during higher tides, due to the water acting as a barrier for gas exchange.

Ruiz-Plancarte works with a series of meteorological instruments which he uses to explain the ecological drivers of carbon dioxide assimilation. For instance, he’s found that cloudy conditions can increase the photosynthetic efficiency by three times for the marsh he studies. Through these results, and in combination with remote sensing data, Ruiz-Plancarte is developing a model for carbon dioxide assimilation that may be applied to other marshes where no instrumentation exists.

The incorporation of remote sensing technology into his research has served as another point of inquiry for Ruiz-Plancarte, since some of his findings indicate an overestimation in the amount of photosynthetic production by the current remote sensing algorithms during different seasons. He hopes to develop this algorithm to reflect these seasonal changes in remote sensing measures.

Ruiz-Plancarte can access his data remotely, but he still travels to his research site regularly to clean, calibrate and ensure the accuracy of his instruments.

It’s arriving there that is the difficult part. On days that weather allows, to get to his site Ruiz-Plancarte must take a water taxi, by navigating a series of small channels that are sometimes filled with crab pots.

“It’s great because, for a few days a month, my office becomes this smelly, wet and beautiful landscape that I get to do hands-on work with. It makes the research I’m doing that much more fulfilling,” Ruiz-Plancarte said.

Ruiz-Plancarte completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, Irvine, where his research was mainly focused on atmospheric and laboratory turbulence.

“No matter what project I worked on, I kept running into Penn State grads. When I decided to apply to a Ph.D. program, I knew Penn State would be a good choice,” Ruiz-Plancarte said.

Once accepted to Penn State, Ruiz-Plancarte discussed potential projects with his adviser, Jose Fuentes, professor of atmospheric science, and decided that the salt marsh ecosystem project was the best fit for him.

Two fellowships and a scholarship are helping to bolster his research. He is the recipient of Penn State’s Bunton-Waller Graduate Fellowship, an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation scholarship and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

“The fellowships provide me with the opportunity to delve into research that interests me,” Ruiz-Plancarte said. “They inspire me to be a better scientist and researcher.”

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Last Updated March 20, 2018