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Gillian Kruskall - Terrestrial Animal Ecology Lab

Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA

This summer, I worked in the Avian Ecology lab with Dr. Peter Marra.  I participated in Neighborhood Nestwatch, a program that studies the effect of urbanization on bird populations by monitoring survival success rates as the birds return to the same or nearby backyards year after year.  As part of the Nestwatch program, I traveled around Maryland and the Washington D.C. area, setting up mist-nets and banding stations in the backyards of volunteers throughout the area.  Additionally, we chose a subset of sites on an urban to rural gradient at which to draw blood from the banded birds.  These blood samples were sent to the lab for analysis of heavy metal content (i.e. lead, mercury, etc.). 

Academic Year Update:
This project was initiated during the summer of 2005 as part of a Research Education opportunity for Undergraduates (REU) with the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.  Along with the Smithsonian Neighborhood Nestwatch program, we mist-netted, banded and bled over one hundred avian specimens of eight species in urban and rural neighborhoods across Baltimore and Washington DC.
The ongoing goal of this project is to use comparative analysis of the heavy metals in bird blood over an urban to rural gradient in order to make inferences about the long-term stability of these varying ecosystems.  Throughout the Fall, these blood samples were stored in a freezer at the Smithsonian National Zoo's Migratory Bird Center in Washington, D.C.  I retrieved these blood samples and brought them to the Geosciences laboratory at Towson University in Baltimore, MD.  Over the course of four days (December 19th-22nd), Dr. Steven Lev and I worked to process 95 blood samples using Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) in order to determine what metals were present in these blood samples. 
Thus far, we noticed that the overall presence of Chromium, Nickel, Copper, Zinc, Cadmium and Lead appeared to demonstrate visible variations between the urban and rural environments.  The urban environments appear to possess higher levels of these elements, indicating a possible correlation between the use of internal combustion engines (and other man-made technology) and the decreasing stability of urban ecosystems. 
The remainder of the blood samples will be processed by Dr. Lev in late January.  I will be continuing the analysis of this data during the spring of 2006 at Occidental College.

After this upcoming final year at Occidental College, I hope to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine and continue to work in research and conservation.  I absolutely loved my summer at SERC.  I really enjoyed every minute I was there - from the time spent in the avian lab to the bird banding in the field to the time spent laughing with my friends in the dorm.  I would recommend the REU program at SERC to anyone who is interested in gaining useful experience in biological research in an environment where enjoying ones' self is inevitable.

Funding provided by the National Science Foundation - REU