Dr. William Edwards (from left), Kaleigh Block, Joy O'Brien, and Dr. Cassandra Marnocha at the Niagara University Undergraduate Research Conference.

Former Niagara University biology students Kaleigh Block and Joy O’Brien, along with Dr. William Edwards, professor of biology, and Dr. Cassandra Marnocha, assistant professor of biology, authored a biology research article showcasing their study of the vertical structure of the bacterial diversity in Green Lake in Fayetteville, NY.

The fieldwork for this research officially started in June of 2018, and now, three years later, the research is officially published in MicrobiologyOpen, a journal that publishes research on microbial science and biotech. 

What is of particular interest with Green Lake is that it is a meromictic lake, meaning it is permanently stratified. The research focused on identifying the microbial community within Green Lake, particularly in areas of the lake where there is a drastic change in the chemistry make-up of the lake. 

“There was a lot of planning that went into it all," said O'Brien. "We first wanted to make sure that we had a solid experimental design and really robust research questions. I think our research questions came down to ‘Who’s there?’  and ‘What are they doing?,’ in terms of microbial community structure.”

Aside from being a meromictic lake, Green Lake is also unique in that the lake has euxinic bottom waters, which means there are high concentrations of sulfur species with depth, and the bottom of the lake is also anoxic, meaning it is lacking oxygen. 

“Because of these unique properties [...] this makes the microbial species in [Green Lake] very diverse with depth," Block said. "We found an abundance of oxygenic phototrophs (e.g. cyanobacteria and green algae) within the surface waters. This was expected because this group requires oxygen and light to grow. We also found an abundance of sulfur cycling microorganisms within the bottom waters of the lake, which was also expected because these groups need little to no oxygen and sulfur compounds to grow.”

Joy and Kaleigh presented their findings at numerous conferences, including the Niagara University Undergraduate Research Conference (pictured above), the Eastern Colleges Science Conference, the Rochester Academy of Science Conference, and the Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) in Seattle, WA.

Both Block and O'Brien graduated from Niagara University in 2020. O'Brien is currently working towards earning her master of science in microbiology at the University of New Hampshire, which she will finish next year. She plans to continue at UNH to pursue her Ph.D. upon graduation with her masters, and aims to earn a tenure-track faculty position at a primarily undergraduate institution. Block is currently in the geological and atmospheric sciences program and the environmental science program as a second-year masters student at Iowa State University. She also has plans to pursue her Ph.D.

As for the future, Kaleigh said, “I can envision myself as a professor at a smaller university so I can continue independent research and teaching/mentoring. I would also love to work at a research institute as a research scientist.”

Dr. Edwards, who has been a part of the biology department since 2002, and is now the chair of the department, thoroughly enjoys the research process. One of the reasons Dr. Edwards decided to become a professor at Niagara University is because “I enjoy making scientists, and, as it turns out, Kaleigh and Joy are both now in masters programs” to delve further into science and research. Dr. Edwards also notes that this research was an “opportunity for everything to come full circle, as one of the major scientific contributions to the research on this lake came from my Ph.D. supervisor.”

Dr. Marnocha is now starting her sixth year as a professor here at Monteagle Ridge; she started her journey at Niagara University around the same time as Block and O'Brien, back in 2016.

“This research was one of my first major projects at NU, and was one of the most long-term collaborations I have had with students," Dr. Marnocha said. "[This research] perfectly encapsulates what we do here at Niagara.”

The results from the findings at Green Lake will fuel future work delving into gene expression of sulfur-cycling bacteria, and the dynamics of carbon recycling between bacteria and microscopic eukaryotes.