Funds from this Major Research Instrumentation award will be used to purchase a carbon-hydrogen-nitrogen (CHN) elemental analyzer for research in plant and ecosystem ecology by faculty and students at Chapman University, an undergraduate serving institution in Orange, California. Carbon and nitrogen are key elements in a number of important ecological processes ranging from plant responses to the environment to rates of microbial decomposition and soil formation in ecosystems. Through student-faculty collaborations, the CHN elemental analyzer will initially be utilized to explore carbon and nitrogen dynamics in three ecological research programs. (1) Carbon and nitrogen sequestration through sediment deposition in coastal marshes in Southern California. This work will explore sedimentation dynamics and sequestration of carbon and nitrogen in salt marsh soils in order to better understand the fate of these important ecosystems in the face of ongoing sea level rise. (2) The importance of leaf nitrogen allocation in litter decomposition. This project aims to elucidate the links between leaf nitrogen pools (e.g., nucleic acids, amino acids, soluble proteins) and rates of litter decomposition. (3) Integrating biochemical, physiological and morphological responses of plants to changes in water availability. This work will determine how plant species differentially respond to changes in the intensity and timing of precipitation events and how these responses relate to plant fitness.
The acquisition of a CHN elemental analyzer will facilitate research, teaching and outreach at Chapman University by allowing students and local educators to gain hands-on experience with an instrument commonly used in ecological research. In particular, the instrument will increase faculty scholarship and create new opportunities for student-faculty mentorship with a diverse group of undergraduate collaborators. The CHN elemental analyzer will also increase access to modern research instrumentation for student and faculty as well as local high school and community college instructors. Through mentored student research and inclusion into new and existing curricula, this instrumentation will facilitate education in a research-intensive environment and prepare our students for future scientific careers.
Through this grant we have acquired an elemental analyzer to measure carbon and nitrogen in leaves and soils at Chapman University. This instrument has supported the work of two junior researchers working in a variety of ecosystems, ranging from salt marshes and semi-arid coastal sage scrub communities in southern California, to boreal peatlands in northern Minnesota. Multiple scientific projects continue to utilize this instrument. These include projects exploring the accumulation of soil carbon and nitrogen following ecosystem restoration in wetland environments; a large international experiment to understand the function of native and invasive species in Mediterranean-climate ecosystems; experiments investigating the controls of greenhouse gas dynamics in wetland soils; and a project exploring how leaf nitrogen content in invasive grasses responds to changes in nutrient availability and precipitation. Chapman University is a primarily undergraduate institution and student collaborators have played a key role in the broad range of research efforts utilizing this equipment. To date, 15 undergraduate students have gained experience collecting and analyzing ecological data with this instrument through faculty-mentored research. A majority of these students are female and many are first-generation college students or have racial/ethnic identities underrepresented in the sciences. The use of this equipment in upper-division ecology courses allows an additional 20 undergraduate students to gain hands-on experience with this instrument each year. We have also initiated a new program which engages local high school students in ecological research and we anticipate that approximately 10 high school students will assist with our research each semester.