The pollution of the Minnesota River is hardly something to celebrate. However, when it became the topic of Sarah Tzilkowski’s paper in an undergraduate writing course, the scientific community gained an incredibly passionate and inspiring student and researcher. Then a psychology major at Minnesota State University, Tzilkowski said the assignment fascinated her so much that she decided to transfer to Penn State in the fall of 2006 to pursue a major in Environmental Resource Management (ERM) and a minor in Watersheds and Water Resources.
Tzilkowski has remained at Penn State since then, contributing much to both the university and to the general field of water and forest resources. She completed her master’s degree in May 2013 after completion of a project that started with the help of Ray Bryant and Anthony Buda of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and collaborators at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
Bryant heard an NPR report about California sea lions suffering from epilepsy due to exposure from toxic algal blooms, the causes of which were unknown. Tzilkowski, who at the time was deciding between accepting a full-time job or continuing her education, says she walked into Bryant’s office with this dilemma and came out with the initial plans for her master’s degree research, the results of which would be a two-year long study on urea transport in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and its effects on algal blooms.
“Over fifty percent of chemical fertilizers used in the world are urea,” Tzilkowski says, but despite the fact that a scientist linked the growth of this particular algae species to increased concentrations of urea, it was believed that agricultural urea could not be the cause of the algal blooms because it hydrolyzes (breaks down into ammonia gas) so quickly. What Tzilkowski and her colleagues acknowledged, however, was how much urea is actually applied to our agricultural land. They questioned whether or not it could oversaturate the land, ending up in our waterways. For the study, Tzilkowski completed synoptic sampling across the agriculturally dominated Manokin River watershed on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in order to isolate different land management practices.
“It was a complicated story. The nitrogen cycle is really intricate, urea even more so because it is an organic form of nitrogen and therefore changes very quickly.”
Tzilkowski says there were so many potential sources of urea, both biological and anthropogenic, that the research team wasn’t able to isolate primary sources, but nonetheless, they made important findings. Higher urea concentrations were found in wetland-dominated watersheds during baseflow conditions, but Tzilkowski asserts that we cannot rule out agricultural urea because of pulses in urea concentrations in streams draining agriculturally dominated landscapes during storm events.
“The great thing about this study is that it sets up a hundred different research questions for future projects."
Amid all of the responsibilities that her master’s research demanded, Tzilkowski was able to find the time to help reinstate the Penn State Student Chapter of the American Water Resources Association (AWRA), where she currently serves as its president. The club has actively participated and led a number of water-related events this year already. On World Water Day (March 22), for example, Tzilkowski and the Penn State Student Chapter of AWRA visited a second and fifth-grade classroom to teach the students about water issues and conservation.
Tzilkowski lights up as she recalls her master’s education experience. Describing herself as a researcher at heart, she says “if you have an opportunity to go to graduate school and you’re interested in something in particular, it’s a great experience where you’ll learn so much about yourself.”
After just finishing her master's degree in forest resources this past May, Tzilkowski shows no signs of slowing down. She currently is pursuing a doctoral degree in forest resources under the direction of Elizabeth Boyer, associate professor of water resources in the College of Agricultural Sciences, director of the Pennsylvania Water Resources Research Center, and assistant director of the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment.
Tzilkowski's research is focusing on long-term observations of water quantity and quality to explore the effects of changing environmental conditions on carbon flowing in rivers and streams in Pennsylvania and the Northeastern United States in general.
“Factors such as land use, atmospheric deposition, climatic variability, and development all affect the amount of carbon in surface water networks. This area of research is particularly important since carbon controls the energy balance and the food chain in aquatic ecosystems,” says Tzilkowski.
Additionally, Tzilkowski wants to develop an online seminar course in watershed biogeochemistry for graduate students at Penn State in collaboration with students at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Uppsala, Sweden.
Most notably, Tzilkowski was awarded a prestigious fellowship from the CarbonEARTH (Educators and Researchers Together for Humanity) Program, an NSF-funded project that teams Penn State Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) graduate students with elementary and middle school science teachers from Pennsylvania’s Philipsburg and Harrisburg School Districts. The CarbonEARTH program uses the interdisciplinary theme of carbon, broadly construed, as a unifying platform for student investigation, discovery, training and education. She will start in August in conjunction with her graduate research at Penn State. For more information about CarbonEARTH please visit http://carbonearth.org/ online.
When asked how she became interested in the program, Tzilkowski returns to a conference held by CarbonEARTH that she volunteered at previously this year, where she observed Nobel Prize winner Sir Harold Kroto speaking to a group of children. “He was so inspiring, so energetic, and so exciting that when he asked the kids at the end of his speech ‘How many of you want to be a scientist?’ they all raised their hands.”
After volunteering in the classrooms on World Water Day, Tzilkowski reiterates, “it was so fun and so rewarding, I knew than that I really wanted to apply for the CarbonEARTH fellowship.”
“I’m really excited to get this fellowship not only because it will help me develop my communication skills, but also because I get to work with and inspire kids, and maybe even influence the next generation of scientists.”
After finishing her PhD, Tzilkowski says she would love to work in extension, where she feels she could bridge the gaps in research and relay scientific information to the public in a user-friendly way.
For more information on the AWRA student chapter, please visit http://agsci.psu.edu/students/activities/other/awra online.