Sustainability Studies Program earthworm research recap, 2014 edition!

During my first semester with the Sustainability Studies Earthworm Ecotoxicology lab, back in January 2012, I had seven brave students working with me. We wanted to examine the effect of acid rain on earthworm health, so we designed and ran the research—and made a lot of mistakes. Some of them were pretty funny. As a primate behavioral ecologist, I didn’t know a lot about earthworms. Who knew that earthworms wouldn’t stay in the containers you put them in? Who knew that fungus gnats from earthworm soils could take over a greenhouse? Well, we know those things now!

With more than thirty students working in the lab each semester, we’ve conducted handfuls of important research. We’ve looked at the effects of substances like fertilizer, Ortho Weed B Gon and Roundup on earthworm health. We’ve submitted a total of six posters to URECA. We’ve helped one student conduct her research for the Honors College, and we’ve participated in the Earthstock Keynote address.

The earthworm students work in groups, run by team leaders. They come to me with ideas, we work though the logistics and hone their hypotheses, and then those students organize the manual labor, data collection and write up. In keeping with that spirit, my current group of students, who are divided into two smaller sub-groups, describe their current research below:

The Cadmium Project

Students sifting soil for use in an experiment.

Students sifting soil for use in an experiment.

The goal of our experiment is to determine how long it will take to breed cadmium-resistant earthworms. We predict that it will take more than 4 months for the cadmium resistant earthworm to sustain a fertility rate that is comparable to those of normal earthworms. Cadmium is a known pollutant that has negative effects on the fertility of earthworms. This substance enters the environment through sewage waste, as well as its use in manures and pesticides. This chemical is known to affect the earthworms by markedly decreasing the amount of cocoons that can be produced by earthworms per reproductive cycle. To test our hypothesis, we are placing earthworms in soil that has had a cadmium solution applied to it in varying amounts. The soil will be tested over a period of 6 months for microbe respiration. Additionally, we will be determining the resulting earthworm mortality and biomass. This experiment has given us the opportunity to raise awareness to others about the potential dangers of using these particular chemicals.

The Roundup Project

At the Life Sciences Greenhouse, we’re testing the effect of Roundup on soil microbial respiration and earthworm mortality, the supervision of Dr. Pochron and with the assistance of Michael Axelrod and John Klumpp. This project is an interdepartmental collaboration between Sustainability, Biology and Chemistry. We want to see if Roundup, a popular household herbicide, affects soil microbial consortium and worm mortality. Since earthworm presence indicates healthy soil activity, we predict Roundup will negatively affect soil microbial respiration and increase worm mortality. Results from this study will help elucidate the effects of anthropogenic herbicide use on soil ecosystems. Working in the lab, we learn to independently conduct experiments through hands-on experience.

Many of the Fall 2014 worm lab students gathered in Stony Brook University's Life Science Greenhouse.

Many of the Fall 2014 worm lab students gathered in Stony Brook University’s Life Science Greenhouse.


sharonsxegall1By Sharon Pochron, Ph.D.
Professor and Earthworm Ecotoxicology Researcher
Sustainability Studies Program

The Salad Trail: An organic oasis in the middle of a desert

Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program student Emily Nocito found that the Salad Trail in Israel’s Negev Desert is a most unexpected organic oasis.

The Negev Desert of Israel: not the place one would think about when it comes to agriculture, especially taking into account the varying temperatures. In the summer, temperatures can be as hot as 100°F, while at night can drop to nearly 30°F. However, one place, The Salad Trail, is defying all odds by creating a sustainable farm in the middle of this barren land.

How do I know this? I had the pleasure of visiting the farm, along with 39 other students, 7 Israel Defense Force soldiers, and four staff members during this winter’s Taglit program. In the middle of January, in this huge desert, I was picking kumquats straight off the tree. I ate many different types of tomatoes, all grown in a greenhouse. I witnessed some of my friends try a habanero pepper fresh from the vine (no way I was going to eat that!). The Salad Trail, thought up and owned by a lovely agronomist named Uri Alon, seeks to educate a wide range of ages through a commonality we all love- eating.

Along with learning about how they operate their farm- like all the water used is recycled wastewater from Tel Aviv, and the temperatures are controlled using energy from their solar panels, we learned about the struggles of sustainable growing in such harsh conditions while eating our way through the various greenhouses. In the strawberry room, we learned that the strawberries were grown in turf made from coconut shells rather than soil. When asked how they dealt with pests, our lovely tour guide surprised me with her response: Rather than using pesticides, they call up a kibbutz that breeds bugs. They tell the workers there what type of pest they have, and the members of the kibbutz send them a natural predator to the pest. Thinking ahead, they only send males, preventing their reproduction.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would find an organic oasis in the middle of the Negev.

Emily, on her recent travels to Israel.

Emily, on her recent travels to Israel.

By Emily Nocito
Sustainability Studies Program ’16
Coastal Environmental Studies Major
Ecosystems and Human Impact Minor

Reflections of a senior EDP major

The Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program offers students an intimate learning experience and a number of great academic and career-development opportunities thanks to the program’s enthusiastic faculty and staff.

As a senior Environmental Design, Policy and Planning major, I can speak from my own experience about how dedicated the professors are, and how many excellent opportunities they offer students not only on campus, but outside of the classroom as well.

In the two-and-a-half years I have been part of the program, I have been given the opportunity to attend exciting events such as the third-annual Global District Energy Climate Awards in New York City and Vision Long Island’s 13th-annual Smart Growth Summit. Events like these have given me first hand experience of a number of different “planning” fields, and I feel that these experiences are very helpful in guiding students toward their future career path.

The Sustainability Studies Program has also offered me the opportunity to study overseas, where I gained valuable and marketable international skills in sustainability. Last winter, I traveled to Costa Rica, an international leader in renewable energy. There, my classmates and I developed and proposed ideas aimed at further improving the country’s sustainability, while also bolstering its economy. It was an invaluable experience to receive feedback about these proposed ideas from my peers, professors and Costa Rican citizens themselves.

In Costa Rica, I nabbed this awesome picture of a sleeping sloth!

In Costa Rica, I nabbed this awesome picture of a sleeping sloth!

Our SBU Sustainability Studies Program Costa Rica Winter 2014 study abroad group at AeroEnergia, a wind-based Costa Rican energy company.

Our SBU Sustainability Studies Program Costa Rica Winter 2014 study abroad group at AeroEnergia, a wind-based Costa Rican energy company.

Opportunities like these give students experience outside of the classroom that can give them an edge when beginning their careers or gaining admission into sustainability-related graduate degree programs. Overall, Stony Brook University’s Sustainability Studies Program offers an enriching academic experience and prepares students well for life after graduation.

1512176_10151940814274423_342450373_oBy Michael Loper
Sustainability Studies Program ’15
Environmental Design, Policy and Planning Major

Documenting Cuba’s cultural mission to help protect the environment

José Oriol Gonzáles, the director of Teatro de los Elementos, speaking with Karina Pino of Artes Escencias, Melinda and me.

José Oriol Gonzáles, the director of Teatro de los Elementos, speaking with Karina Pino of Artes Escencias, Melinda and me.

From October 29 to November 5, 2014, my colleagues Professor Melinda Levin (University of North Texas) and Filip Celdander (University of Texas, Dallas), and I traveled to Cuba under a cultural visa given to us by the Cuban Ministry of Culture to collaborate with Artes Escenicas, Cuba’s leading performing arts organization, to film performing arts groups in Cuba doing environmental outreach.

Schoolchildren in Sancti Spiritus after a puppet performance.

Over the week, we filmed Teatro Cabotin in Sancti Spiritus, Teatro de los Elementos in Cumanayagua, La Fortaleza in Juragua, and Teatro de Colaboracion con el Medio Ambiente in Romerillo-Havana. The goal of this collaboration was to explore the use of performing arts as a form of outreach and education. We stayed in small Cuban communities, living with the locals. One community, Teatro de los Elemntos, has an organic farm and the locals there live sustainably. There and elsewhere, we noted the specific community issues locals are addressing and in our filmmaking emphasized their creative responses to problems/challenges with the environment.

Performance of Teatro de Colaboración con el Medio Ambiente in Romerillo-Havana.

Performance of Teatro de Colaboración con el Medio Ambiente in Romerillo-Havana.

Our documentary work is meant to help us better understand the creative process, the daily lives of the artists and community members, and the connection between art, community and positive social change. My colleagues and I gathered over twenty-five hours of film footage of performances and interviews as well as thousands of photos of locations and performances. The products of our research will include published essays and interviews, short documentary films and eventually a longer work on Cuban arts and the environment.

Boats in the Bahia de Cienfuegos.

Boats in the Bahia de Cienfuegos.

Artes Escenicas has already invited our group to return and collaborate more extensively in 2015. This year we will work more intensely with Teatro Cabotin and Teatro de los Elementos, and will also travel to Las Tunas to film Teatro Tuyo and its latest theatrical work, Gris. The director of Teatro Tuyo, Ernesto Parra, explains that the purpose of Gris is to raise awareness of the importance of environmental protection.

Me on the ferry crossing Bahia de Cienfuegos

On the ferry crossing Bahia de Cienfuegos

By David J. Taylor, Ph.D.
Visiting Professor of Sustainability
Sustainability Studies Program

E grant used to boost education, minimize environmental impact

When it comes to being a college student, it’s not always easy to minimize your environmental impact. While use of the Internet and other technologies like e-textbooks has become more common in recent years, most classes still require that you use at least some paper to take exams, complete assignments, write notes and review class readings.

But this past semester, Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program professors Dr. Arlene Cassidy and Dr. Anthony Dvarskas created a completely paperless course based on the use of electronics to minimize the class’ environmental impact while maintaining high educational standards and increasing students’ exposure to the use of technology in education.

To eliminate the need for paper printed textbooks, exams, paper presentations, homework, scheduling and other course-related items for their course–SBC 401: Integrated, Collaborative Systems–Cassidy and Dvarskas used an “E grant” (a college grant for the use of technology for educational purposes) to obtain electronic tablets for each student.

The professors also used Blackboard, Stony Brook University’s online course-support platform and email to communicate with students, distributing Internet-based reading material, projects, tests and announcements. Besides communicating with their professors, students collaborated with each other online, sharing data and projects, as well as creating group presentations. Additionally, all scheduling and student/course evaluations were completed online.

Want to learn more about SBC 401?
Drs. Cassidy and Dvarskas describe the course below:

Assemblyman Steve Englebright, also a professor at SBU, discusses the coastal restoration project at West Meadow Beach on Long Island.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright, also a professor at SBU, discusses the coastal restoration project at West Meadow Beach on Long Island.

“The primary course objectives of SBC 401 are to develop a way of thinking about complex systems in present-day society, and to provide the necessary research, communication, and team-based skills to address the complex problems involved with coastal regions. The course is organized as a seminar/research project course. As part of the course, the instructors provide practical training in the skills needed to work in teams to conduct research and communicate the results. The teams of students develop a project related to coastal restoration, collect the necessary data (either from databases or through limited field work), analyze the data, and synthesize their findings into a presentation at the end of the semester.

This fall, the focus of the course was on an issue very important here on Long Island: coastal restoration. Several people in the Stony Brook University community have been and are involved with coastal restoration projects and were able to share their expertise and research with the students. Students also were able to gain on site experience visting two local beach restoration projects; West Meadow Beach and Sunken Meadow’s beaches.”

arlenebioArlene Cassidy, Ph.D.
Environmental Economist, Lecturer and Director
Sustainability Studies
Sustainability Studies Program



Anthony Dvarskas, Ph.D.anthony1 Environmental Economist, Coastal Environmental Scientist, Lecturer
Sustainability Studies Program