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Biology Professor and Graduate Student to Travel to Siberia on Research Trip

BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – JULY 2, 2013A member of The University of Texas at Brownsville’s Department of Biological Sciences will travel to Siberia this summer to conduct ongoing research on climate warming, the increase of wildfires and carbon cycling.
UTB graduate student Aaron White and Dr. Heather Alexander of the Department of Biological Sciences will travel in early July to Siberia for a month-long research trip.
UTB graduate student Aaron White and Dr. Heather Alexander of the Department of Biological Sciences will travel in early July to Siberia for a month-long research trip.
 
Dr. Heather Alexander, an Assistant Professor teaching Plant Ecology, Global Change Biology and South Texas Ecosystems, leaves Tuesday, July 9 for the Northeast Science Station on the Kolyma River in Cherskii in Russia’s Siberia region and will return in early August. The trip is funded by a National Science Foundation grant.
 
Alexander will re-visit plots of land that she created small fires on during her trip to the research facility last summer. She set the fires to try and understand how an increase in hot fires will affect the soil’s organic layer which has dead mosses and roots that is atop the mineral soil.
 
“This layer is very important because it insulates the underlying frozen soils (permafrost) and protects them from thawing,” said Alexander. “It also provides a seedbed for trees and other plants. Most climate models predict that as the world’s climate becomes warmer, fires will become hotter. If this happens, more of this soil layer will be burned by fires. Less insulation could lead to thawing permafrost, making carbon stored in these soils available for microbial use. If soil microbes use this carbon for their growth, they will release carbon dioxide as a by-product. Because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, this could amplify climate warming.”
 
Accompanying Alexander to conduct his own master’s thesis research is Aaron White, 24, a second-year graduate student in biology from Apple Valley, Minn. He will study how wildlife browsing on vegetation influences the ability of forests to re-grow following disturbances, like fire. White received a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology in 2011 from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in Minneapolis.
 
“There are trips you dream of, and conducting research in the Arctic has been on my list of dream locations for a long time,” said White. “I’m really excited to meet other researchers and learn more about how climate change is affecting the Arctic.”
 
 
Alexander and White are traveling with the The Polaris Project which is funded by the National Science Foundation and provides opportunities for scientists, students and academic instructors to conduct arctic and global climate change research.
 
“For a master’s student to take this research expedition across the globe, it really shows a dedication and a willingness to try new things,” said Alexander. “It’s a great way to prove one has what it takes to succeed in science.”
 
The Northeast Science Station was founded in 1989 by scientists from the Pacific Institute of Geography of the Far East Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The research station receives funding to operate from the National Science Foundation, the Russian Science Foundation and the Soros Foundation and supports scientists from across the globe, including the United States, Germany and Japan.
 
“There are housing quarters that are rustic,” said Alexander. “All our drinking water and shower water is pumped up from the river.”
 
Alexander and White will depart from Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport and fly through New York City, Moscow and Yakutsk, Russia before landing in Cherskii. Cherskii, Alexander noted, has one flight in and out of its small airport per week.
 
Alexander will travel to the Northeast Science Station in the summers of 2014-2018 as part of a new National Science Foundation grant she recently received. The grant will provide full funding for two university master’s degree students in biology and offer a summer research experience to four university undergraduate students. 
 
“I think it’s important for students to experience science in a hands-on way,” said Alexander. “Participating in field research allows students to be part of the natural ecosystem, to see firsthand how nature works. It’s a great way to get students involved.”
 
The funding also includes an educational outreach program to work with local primary and secondary educators and students and provides funding for Alexander and her graduate students to travel to the Ecological Society of America’s conference each summer and present their Siberian research.
 
Participating in an international conference is an incredible way of learning about what others are doing and networking,” said Alexander. “It also teaches students how to organize and present their research in a way that is accessible to a broad audience.”
 
Alexander has traveled to Siberia before, in 2010 and 2012, while she did National Science Foundation post-doctoral work at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla.

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