Standing knee-deep in Nebraska’s Niobrara River, Kayla Vondracek balances herself in the fast current, reaches beneath the water and searches for traces of algae.
It’s a wet, tiring process — but Vondracek, a senior at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, is enjoying every minute.
Since coming to Nebraska in fall 2018 as an environmental studies major, Vondracek has been motivated to help protect the natural world. Her experiences through the university this summer have given her the scientific edge she was searching for, as well as the opportunity to study one of the biggest rivers in her state.
Heading out west
This summer, through Nebraska’s UCARE program, Vondracek traveled to the Niobrara with several other students to assess how human recreation on the river is potentially impacting its aquatic ecosystem. She completed the project under Jessica Corman, assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources.
“A lot of people think of a river as a recreational opportunity, which it definitely can be, but it also feeds into groundwater and different things we need that are essential to life,” Vondracek said. “Understanding how we're impacting it might help us understand how to protect it.”
The Niobrara is a destination for thousands of tourists each year, who take to its waters for kayaking, tanking and a variety of other recreational activities. Through their research, Vondracek and Corman want to ensure that the river stays healthy and vibrant for more visitors to enjoy in the future.
"One of the biggest things that I always think about is how lucky we are, in a place like Nebraska, to have the freshwater resources that we do," Vondracek said. "Only about 2.5 percent of the water on earth is freshwater, and even a smaller percentage of that is drinkable freshwater. It's so important to me that we protect that."
To assess how tourism has impacted the river’s water quality, Vondracek and her team members turned to a tiny, green plant floating beneath its surface — algae. Because of a high sensitivity to changes in pH and nutrient concentrations, algae is a great indicator of overall health of an aquatic environment. It also sustains life throughout the river.
“The main thing that we wanted to recognize with algae is that it’s a big producer of oxygen in the water," Vondracek said. "That oxygen is really essential to fish and other aquatic species, which then go on to feed different wildlife, so it's just a big chain reaction.”
On an initial scouting trip to the Niobrara in May, Vondracek and her project members met with the National Park Service and other fisheries and wildlife agencies to identify areas of minimal, moderate and heavy human activity on the river.
While some areas of the river are well-traveled by tourists, others are federally protected, meaning that they are largely untouched by human recreation. That protected section, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, served as the group’s minimal activity control group.
Due to large amounts of rainfall this summer, Vondracek’s team battled high waters during the collection process. Scraping algae from rocks on the river bottom was just one part of the equation — they were then filtered, frozen and stored in film canisters to shield them from sunlight.
After visiting 17 collection sites over week-long trips in June, July and August, Vondracek brought her algae samples back to the group’s Hardin Hall lab on East Campus, where she will spend weeks analyzing them for answers.
“Sampling is one of my favorite things to do. It gets a little tiring towards the middle of the day when the sun's at its highest, but it's still worth it,” she said. “Being on the river in the morning was so amazing, and being able to pass this information onto people is going to be really cool.”
Charting a new path
“I've always loved the environment and being outside ever since I was a little kid,” Vondracek said, describing her lifelong hobbies of kayaking and camping.
However, for a time, that passion wasn’t always her career plan.
After graduating from high school and attending college in her home state of South Dakota for a year, a variety of financial and health-related struggles interfered with Vondracek’s plans to go to school. For three years, she worked full-time at a post office.
Vondracek met her husband during that time and moved to his hometown of Verdigre, Nebraska. The change of scenery, along her husband’s support, served as motivation to go back and earn a degree.
“When I moved to Verdigre, it was a really scenic area near the Niobrara River and the Missouri River,” Vondracek said.
“I saw that beauty again, and I thought, ‘I want to do everything I can to protect these resources.’ It fueled me to want to go back to school and figure out a career path, to wherever it takes me, to be a part of protecting our last natural resources and preserving that for people to enjoy.”
Energized by those new possibilities, Vondracek enrolled in classes at community college with the goal of obtaining an associate’s degree in agriculture.
Beginning an eventual bachelor’s degree with community college courses isn’t the most common route for students — but Vondracek said it was the perfect fit for her at that time in her life.
“For me, it was important to get back into education slowly and to build myself up to it. Taking years off, you're like, 'Oh, gosh — school again?',” Vondracek said. “But it went so much better than I planned.”
When it came time to graduate, Vondracek was ready to dive into an environmental studies career at Nebraska.
“I wanted to take advantage of a Big Ten education, and I’ve definitely been happy with that decision,” she said.
Vondracek and her husband moved to Lincoln before her first fall semester in 2018. She said that the sense of community she found in the city, especially the large number of organizations devoted to sustainability, made the transition exciting.
“I was just shocked at all the opportunities that there were, being from a small town,” Vondracek said.
Over the past year, Vondracek has become a member of Nebraska’s Outdoor Education Club, the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources student advisory board and Tau Sigma, a national honors society for transfer students. She also has worked as an intern with The Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities and the Lincoln and Lancaster County Health Department.
When she started classes at Nebraska, Vondracek imagined she’d go into the teaching side of environmental studies. However, after taking several required science classes, her mindset changed.
“I never envisioned myself as being a scientific, technical person, but going through chemistry and plant and soil science really helped me realize how much I enjoy being the person with my hands in the dirt and water," Vondracek said.
“The lab work and the field work seemed really enticing to me, so this was my opportunity to get into a more natural resources emphasis with my major.”
Nebraska’s UCARE program
Nebraska’s Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience program allows sophomore through senior students, representing a variety of disciplines, to complete research under a faculty member on campus.
UCARE was founded in 1998, and today, it’s the largest summer undergraduate research program in the Big Ten. Throughout this summer and the 2019-2020 academic year, the program will consist of 229 faculty mentors and represent 68 unique majors across campus.
Along with introducing students to research, UCARE serves as a stepping stone to a more advanced academic career. In a recent survey of participants, 66% said they plan to attend graduate or professional school after completion of their undergraduate degree.
“One of the really exciting things for me is working with undergraduate students. I think it’s such a fascinating opportunity to get students out in the field, learn something about the environment around them and give them a chance to learn the scientific method in a very hands-on way,” Corman said.
“As an undergraduate, perhaps the most profound experience I had was a summer research experience. It really instilled in me a passion for doing research and the importance of outdoor experiences. That’s part of my drive to give those experiences to the students that I mentor, as well.”
In the lab on Nebraska’s East Campus, Vondracek gets down to work — meticulously going through dozens of algae samples to assess their chlorophyll content.
After refrigerating and preserving the algae in acetone, she then places each sample under a spectrophotometer. The device sends light through the algae and computes the wavelength at which it is being absorbed.
“It's been really interesting to learn all these different processes. I had done that in chemistry labs before, but never to this extent. And it's a lot different to when it's your data, and you get to put it all together at the end for research poster,” Vondracek said. “It's just teaching me a lot.”
Following the standard two-year track in the program, Vondracek will continue to develop her research under Corman during the 2019-2020 academic year. She’s enjoyed the unique experience of working side-by-side with a faculty member, and now hopes to incorporate research into her future career.
It’s a path, she says, that was made possible by her participation in UCARE.
“It’s been a really cool research project to do for my first research project, and I feel very lucky that I got to be a part of this,” Vondracek said. “I think it’ll be really interesting to see all of our results towards the end.”