Research Recap for Oct. 1: WWU gets a new Germanium detector, and inside the life of the pinto abalone

Western’s faculty and students are engaged in exciting research and scholarship across a variety of fields. Each week, Western Today will share short summaries of the latest developments in scholarly work at the University. Interested in reading in-depth stories about science and research at Western? Want more research news? Follow @WWUResearch on Twitter.

Broad-Energy Germanium Detector

Western will be able to expand research and education programs in environmental science and geology after receiving a $124,892 grant from the National Science Foundation for the purchase of a broad-energy germanium gamma ray detector. The earth possesses many naturally occurring radioactive elements that emit gamma radiation, says Professor of Environmental Science John Rybczyk, who is the Principal Investigator on the grant, along with Professor of Environmental Science David Shull and Research Associate Katrina Poppe. By measuring the quantity and distribution of these elements, researchers can estimate the rates of important processes, such as the burial of sediment and organic carbon, removal of contaminants from seawater, and the mixing and transport of important particulate materials including carbon, metals, and organic contaminants. The broad-energy germanium gamma ray detector will allow students and faculty at WWU to quantify sedimentary processes, characterize past environments, and to assess changes in land use, pollution, and other natural conditions over time.

The department plans to use this new device to determine how fast carbon accumulates in marsh and seafloor sediments and how fast particles are transported in estuaries, and it can be used to determine rates of mixing in estuaries such as Bellingham Bay, Shull says. Researchers who would like to reconstruct the history of lakes and estuaries in our region and to better understand the processes that make clam gardens so productive will be able to use the device in their studies as well. Faculty and student researchers will be able to address problems related to climate change and contaminant transport, as well as learn how organisms that live in marine sediments gather food and how their activities affect their habitats.

Elizabeth Diehl

Elizabeth Diehl is a second-year graduate student of biology from Oregon who specializes in pinto abalone and their environment. Specifically, she focuses on environmental influences on abalone’s development. Broadcast spawning efforts, where gametes are released into the water and make contact with each other in external fertilization, have become less effective recently due to low abalone population. Diehl investigates environmental factors heavily influenced by climate change, such as water temperature and pH levels, which may be responsible for preventing recovery of the population. Diehl is a recipient of the WWU Graduate Research Award for her thesis titled, “The effects of fluctuating temperature and pH on the shell and radula morphology of post-set pinto abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana).”

Diehl’s research is focused on the pinto abalone and its environment.

Diehl has been heavily invested in marine biology since middle school when she taught classes to children at summer camp. She studied abroad in the Bahamas in high school specializing in island food sources and went on to study marine biology at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. In her gap year between undergrad and grad school, Diehl had two internships during which she hosted over 1,000 students at Au Sable in Michigan.

Diehl says that in her experience, Western research has been collaborative rather than competitive, with a high priority placed on mentorship by her graduate research advisor, Biology Professor Deborah Donovan. Diehl first considered graduate school at Western when a WWU graduate school alumnus with a master’s in education shared his appreciation for his WWU grad school experience with her.

Diehl plans to get a doctorate in marine biology and hopes to work as the education director for an aquarium or zoo. For more about Western's work helping the recovery of the pinto abalone, click here.