Shore Native Returns for Dream Job Directing Coastal Research Center

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By Stefanie Jackson — At the Oyster research center, scientists study the entire coastal system, from coastal forests and salt marsh to mud flats and seagrass meadows, all the way to the barrier islands. They learn a lot by paying close attention to the physical processes of how waves, wind, mud and sand shape the landscape.

For example, only 1 percent of marsh erosion happens during major storms, Johnston revealed. Why? During a major storm, water rises over the marsh. The water is calmer at the bottom, and the marsh impedes wave action, causing it to lose half its strength. An average day with a light breeze causing the waves to lap against the marsh is actually the ideal situation for erosion, Johnston explained.

What does all this mean for the community? The knowledge gained by the Oyster researchers can be used to make decisions about the location of preserved lands, for example.

Flood prevention is another useful application of the work being done at the research facility. Johnston would like the Oyster lab to contribute information to The Nature Conservancy for further development of the Coastal Resiliency Tool it makes publicly available online.

Johnston is excited to continue to grow the facility’s efforts in community education and outreach. 

One program already in place is the Art and Ecology weekend workshop for teachers, which counts toward their recertification. The workshop combines the study of salt marsh ecology and drawing, which complement each other well because “research begins with observation and so does art,” she said.

Students in elementary school through high school can study oyster nurseries right in the classroom. Schools that have participated in the program last school year include Broadwater Academy, Cape Charles Christian School, the Montessori Children’s House of Franktown, Kiptopeke and Metompkin elementary schools, and Arcadia High.

Johnston is interested in creating new programs that give more diverse student populations access to the coast and inspire more young women to pursue careers in science and math. 

One of her former schools had a program called Girls Day In the Lab where middle school girls did activities like observing fish behavior and extracting and studying marine DNA.

In the winter, visitors don’t go out on the boats and the labs are empty, presenting the perfect opportunity for educational experiences for students and community members.

Johnston also would like to hold “science pubs.” Instead of hosting a seminar at the lab, talks could be done in more casual settings like local restaurants, making events more accessible to the public.

For more information on the work and outreach being done at the Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center, contact Cora Johnston at 757-620-7016 or coraj@virginia.edu or Donna Fauber at 757-331-1246 or dhf4k@virginia.edu

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