Text size:  A  A  A

Rivers run through it

Professor Jill Welter (left) and (Delor Sander '13-right) discuss their upcoming Iceland trip with Alumna Joy Hammer '52.
Professor Jill Welter (left) and (Delor Sander '13-right) discuss their upcoming Iceland trip with Alumna Joy Hammer '52.
Photo by Andrea Cole.

Every summer since 2005, Jill Welter, associate professor of biology at St. Catherine University, has been bringing undergraduate students to the Eel River Watershed in northern California. There, she and her students study the impact of environmental gradients on nutrient cycling in stream ecosystems by measuring nitrogen fixation in algae and microbes along a river network.

For years, this project has been a focal point of Welter’s body of research. An ecosystem ecologist, she has enjoyed the opportunity to introduce her students to true field research, to give them time to see science in action and help them consider careers in biology.

Providing opportunities like this costs money, and so far Welter has been fortunate to secure funding for the student portion of the trip through two multi-year National Science Foundation grants and a large-scale grant provided by 3M.

This summer, Welter’s California research continues under the leadership of Anika Bratt ’10, a former undergraduate student of Welter who is now a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. A current St. Kate’s biology student, Jackie Goldschmidt ’14, is in California working on the project with Bratt.

“The California research has been amazing and incredibly beneficial for my students,” Welter says. “And our work there has inspired me to expand my own research to other parts of the world.”

Several months ago, Welter was excited to learn about an international research project that was taking place in Iceland’s Hengill watershed, an interconnected system that contains 15 spring-fed streams where water temperature varies by as much as 30 degrees Celsius, providing the perfect natural laboratory for studying the impact of climate change on river ecosystems.

Welter was familiar with international researchers who were working on the Iceland project, and one of them, a former colleague from her postdoctoral days at the University of California-Berkeley, invited her to assemble a team of Katies and join them on them in Iceland for seven weeks this summer.

“It was this amazing opportunity, one I couldn’t afford to pass up,” Welter says, “but I also knew this was going to be a very expensive trip.” She set out to secure funding for the project, writing proposals for external government grants. 

But, supplemental government funds weren't available to support this timely project.

Katies to the rescue

“I had almost given up,” Welter recalls.  She met with Lynda Szymanski, associate dean of the school of Humanities Arts and Sciences and founder of St. Catherine’s Summer Scholars program. “I told her we had this great one-time opportunity and Lynda said that she was going to put us in touch with the University’s Department of Development. They found donors who stepped forward to help pay for this trip. I just couldn’t believe it.”

The money raised will be enough to transport Welter and two biology students — Bayley Lawrence ’14 and Delor Sander ’13 — plus their scientific equipment. The team will stay in Iceland for seven weeks, taking measurements from Hengill and gathering data. When they return to St. Kate’s in the fall, they will focus on preparing papers for national conferences.   

Securing financing for the Iceland research trip received the full, enthusiastic support of St. Catherine’s development team, says Director of Development Beth Riedel Carney ’82. The trip meets the University’s goals of expanding research opportunities for undergraduates and building new international opportunities while emphasizing the school’s history of strong faculty-student collaboration.

 “This was a clear connection for us,” Carney says. “My staff were all very excited to speak with donors about this opportunity.” 

One of the potential donors contacted by Pam McNulty, senior director of gift planning, was Joy Bergeron Hammer ’52. When she heard about the project, Hammer was thrilled to help out.

“When Pam first told me about it this project, I was intrigued because I’m a fan of what St. Kate’s is doing as far as research for students,” Hammer says. “Sixty years ago, when I was a student at St. Kate’s, there just weren’t those kinds of opportunities. I want to help students be able to do real scientific research. This is one way I can do that.”

Welter says that support from Hammer and others will provide the opportunity for her students to step back from their day-to-day responsibilities and focus on science. Many of Welter’s students juggle work and school and rarely have the opportunity to step back and do their research.  

“As a teacher I think that’s priceless,” Welter sighs happily. “We are going to be able to immerse ourselves in this subject every day for seven weeks.”

Delor Sander, one of the students who will be accompanying Welter to Iceland, knows first hand about struggling to make time for her studies.

“I have known Delor for her entire college career,” Welter says. “During this time, I’ve noticed her trying to juggle off-campus jobs and commute to school. Since we secured funding for this trip, Delor sent this email that said, ‘I don’t have much to report on our work right now but I just have to tell you that I gave my two weeks’ notice at the restaurant.’ I could feel the excitement in her email.”

This is just the outcome that Hammer, a home economics major, was hoping for.

“Having a semi-scientific background, I was interested in the Iceland project because it’s a scientific field,” she says. “I want to support projects like this at St. Catherine. I don’t have time to do a lot of volunteer work myself, but I know that one thing I can do is to contribute financially to programs that feel important to me. It’s a way I can make the world a better place.”

Sander’s certainly feels her corner of the world has been improved. “This is a great opportunity,” she says with a bright smile. “I’m excited to focus on a project and see it through to the end. Today, I feel like a real scientist. The funding tells me this is a valid thing. It is incredibly motivating.”

Donor Honor Roll

Jill Welter’s Iceland research project was supported by a number of individual and corporate donors. A large part of the funding came from a large-scale 3M student-faculty collaborative grant from an internal endowment. 

“This funding source got us well on our way,” Welter says,  “but it wouldn't be enough to support our full funding needs for travel, housing, and for the scientific supplies we would need to do the full-scale research project.”

One of the costs of the project was acquiring a new method to measure nitrogen fixation, which requires the use of an expensive specialty gas. Welter was not sure if she and her team would be able to use it given the cost. She explains: “If we could, this new method would greatly increase the precision of our measurements and increase the overall impact of the project results on the scientific community.”  

St. Catherine University’s development team worked with donors to help raise the additional funds that would make the trip and the research possible.  “With the added support from these donors, we will be able to complete the full-scale project including the use of this new isotope method, and have enough funding for travel, housing, and student stipends for this intensive project,” Welter says. “We are extremely grateful to our donors.”

Iceland Research Project Individual Donors

 Patricia A. Connelly '65

Carol Delage '80

Joy Bergeron Hammer ’52

Germaine Harrand '58

Karen Fox Johnston '81

Nancy Koski

Donna McNamara '68

Mary Louise Ryan '66

To learn more

Follow Welter and her students on their Iceland blog.

June 29, 2012 by Andy Steiner

See also: Alumnae/i, Faculty, Liberal Arts, STEM, Students