Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

July 24, 1997

Pitt's Pymatuning lab moves into modern age of ecology research

The tools of ecology have changed radically over the past 20 years. Tape measures, rulers, magnifying lenses and butterfly nets that have been the tools of the trade since before Charles Darwin now share time with comp uters, satellites and atmospheric chambers.

To be a first-rate ecologist today and contribute to the discipline requires a knowledge of chemistry, biochemistry, physics, physiology and genetics, along with an ability to do laboratory work, field work and theoretical work.

"A field station, if it wants to attract good ecologists, has to have all of those things available simultaneously," said Stephen Tonsor, director of Pitt's Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology in Crawford County.

To achieve that mix, Tonsor and the Office of Facilities Management since 1994 have undertaken a number of renovation and building projects that by the end of this year will see a 30-percent increase in space, along with the installation of numerous piece s of equipment and development of a master space plan. Among those projects is a new 1,700 square-foot administration building with a library and a faculty housing unit that is scheduled to be completed in August. The administration building cost $81,000 and the faculty housing $102,000, according to Facilit ies Management.

Tonsor said that when he became director of the field station three years ago, the University agreed to create critically needed storage space at the lab. But he opted to spend the funds on new buildings in which the lab's staff and faculty work, and use old space for storage.

"The University agreed to that and was very generous in actually increasing the amount of funding that was allocated for the project," he said. "It turned out really well. The library is a real pleasant place to work now, much more comfortable." With the addition of the administration building and housing unit, the Pymatuning laboratory will have increased in size since 1989, from about 22,500 square feet to about 34,000 square feet.

Improvements to the lab buildings have included the installation of new windows, wiring, flooring and insulation, gas jets and fume hoods. Tonsor said that Ken Huser, facilities manager at the field station, has been particularly creative in developing a way to renovate and insulate a metal building salvaged decades ago from a Nike missile facility. "From a building everyone said ought to be bulldozed, we'll get easily another 15-20 years of use for a total of probably $30,000," Tonsor pointed out.

Along with additional shelf space for books and journals, the new library also contains reading and meeting spaces, and new computer links. Tonsor said the computer links are especially important because Pymatuning is a seasonal facility.

"Since the bulk of activity up here is between April and November, it doesn't make a lot of sense to invest in a lot of volumes that will sit here mostly unused during the rest of the year," he explained. "Instead, we are putting our money and our efforts into electronic retrieval." As a botanist, Tonsor is most excited about the carbon dioxide chambers being installed in a building on the edge of Pymatuning's wildlife sanctuary. The chambers, which control light, temperature, humidity and atmospheric content, can be used to make pla nts sprout, grow and bloom un- der varying conditions throughout the year.

"From [the Pittsburgh] campus, I can dial up a computer and see how the chambers are doing," Tonsor said. "I can re-program them if I need to. The [manufacturing] company can access them and do trouble shooting from their main facility in Manitoba, Canada ." Once installation is completed, researchers will use the chambers to study things like the effects of increased carbon dioxide on plants. Such information could be critical to the world's food supplies since the burning of fossil fuels is continuously inc reasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"We will use the chambers in combination with field sites to characterize the difference in performance of various genotypes collected from around the world of our study species," Tonsor said.

Other researchers will employ the chambers to study plankton and aquatic life under conditions they find in the field, and then change those conditions to study the effect on aquatic ecosystems.

"You could then make prediction on what the effects of different management practices on a stream or a lake would be on the organisms that live within them," Tonsor said.

The carbon dioxide chambers cost about $100,000 and were purchased with a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. Tonsor believes that they will help to attract more outside researchers to the field station. Researcher-days, the time researchers spend wo rking at the facility, have increased from about 1,000 in 1995 to about 1,450 last year to over 1,500 so far this year.

The director said that a small research endowment controlled by the lab also is attracting people to Pymatuning from outside Pitt by providing initial support for their projects. The hope is that the outside researchers will return to continue their work with funds obtained from other sources.

Outside researchers who have used the lab include faculty from Clarion, Edinboro, Dartmouth, Duke, Florida International and Miami universities, the University of Akron, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan's Flint campus.

Among the problems the Pymatuning field station still faces, according to Tonsor, is about $200,000 in deferred maintenance. The maintenance budget for the lab is about 34 cents per square foot, he pointed out, compared to about $1.50 per square foot on the Pittsburgh campus.

"That can't continue for very long," Tonsor added. "One of the things we are working on within the University is trying to get the maintenance budget and the real costs of maintenance better reconciled." To do that, Interim Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Management Ana Guzman has instituted the development of a master space plan for the Pymatuning lab that should be ready in the fall, according to Tonsor.

–Mike Sajna

Leave a Reply