Columbia River Interns go with the Flow
Patrick Feller was not the only Heritage student conducting intensive research this summer at the Oregon Health and Science University Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (CMOP). Two others, Meadow Rodriquez Jr. and Aric Washines were also among the 14 interns selected from a pool of more than 175 applicants to the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program (REU).
REU is a paid internship experience at CMOP’s Beaverton, Oregon, campus. Undergraduate students work in teams with senior scientists, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from an array of disciplines. Much of their work focuses on the Columbia River as it flows toward and into the Pacific Ocean. The aim of the program is to give undergraduates early exposure to graduate-level study and to help them make the connection between their academics and professional applications.
For his part, Rodriguez, a senior majoring in computer science, put his programing skills to work to help scientists with their research on salmon habitat as part of the Columbia River Treaty review process. The treaty is a 1964 agreement between the United States and Canada, which share management of the river for flood control and power. This treaty comes up for review in 2024. In preparation, both countries are looking at the current management practices and the impacts they are having on the river.
Scientists at CMOP are researching how man-made changes to the river are impacting salmon habitats and, ultimately, the health of salmon species. Sensors in place along the Columbia River routinely measure the water’s velocity, depth, temperature and salinity. This raw historical data is transmitted to the CMOP labs, where Rodriguez applied it to modify genetic programming code. That program then created mathematical equations to build graphical models that scientists use to predict what will happen to the river in the future.
“The data I received was so complicated at times that even the best mathematician couldn’t easily find a suitable equation to represent what was happening,” said Rodriguez. “Computers with genetic programming algorithms can perform this arduous task much, much faster and more accurately.”
Washines, a junior majoring in environmental studies, studied the aquatic food chain at a microscopic level. His work specifically centered on analyzing whether parasitic fungi called chytrids, which feed off the phytoplankton living in the fresh waters of the Columbia River, could be a viable food source for rotifers, zooplankton that are a potential food source for fish fry. Washines reconstructed the natural habitat of these plankton and fungi and measured the rate of reproduction found when rotifers were fed chytrid-infected phytoplankton. Higher rates of reproduction indicated better fed, healthier organisms.
“Part of what made this work so exciting is that it isn’t an area that has been studied all that much,” said Washines.
In the fall Washines, Rodriguez and Feller will each present their research at Heritage’s annual Gathering of Scholars. Rodriguez was also selected to present at the scientific society SACNAS’s Annual Conference in San Antonio, Texas, in October and was awarded a travel scholarship to attend. This will be his second time presenting at the conference.