Professional networking opportunities stirred St. Paul District Biologist Aaron McFarlane’s interest in applying for the U. S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center University, where he is now participating in a six-month session to expand his environmental expertise.
Now in its fifth year, ERDC U partners Corps division and district participants with ERDC subject matter experts to expand participants’ knowledge about technical solutions.
Sponsored by ERDC’s Office of Research and Technology Transfer and the Directorate of Human Capital, ERDC U’s first week in March featured briefings for the chosen participants at the Vicksburg headquarters, followed by interactions with assigned mentors and tours of four of the seven laboratories located throughout the 700-acre campus.
McFarlane shared that he participated in the St. Paul District’s Tier II Leadership Development Program. His mentor, Dr. Rebecca Seal-Soileau, suggestereaching out to people within the Corps to learn how they view their work and pursue their passions. During this quest, he contacted ERDC Environmental Laboratory Research Ecologist Dr. Charles Theiling.
“One of the people I reached out to was Dr. Chuck Theiling, because I’ve always seen him as driven and successful in infusing his passion into his work for the Corps,” McFarlane said. “He mentioned ERDC University during our call. It sounded like a great opportunity to see a different side of the Corps, explore some of my interests, build some new relationships and hopefully learn something new about the Upper Mississippi River environment where I work. I immediately began thinking about my application and coordinating with my supervisor and managers, who have been extremely supportive and helpful in making this experience happen for me.”
As a team member for St. Paul District’s Regional Planning and Environment Division North, McFarlane manages environmental review and planning for Mississippi River Nine-foot Navigation Channel Operations and Maintenance Program projects, primarily related to dredging and dredged material management. McFarlane’s bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, focused on environmental science, policy and management, including environmental review, GIS and soils.
“Our district dredges about one million cubic yards per year, and many of our activities require biological surveys for endangered or protected species, permitting and interagency coordination,” McFarlane said. “I strive to develop and encourage opportunities for beneficial use of dredged material.
“I’ve had the opportunity to plan several projects to use dredged material for ecosystem restoration to construct islands to improve habitat for birds, fish, plants and more. I plan and lead sampling efforts for freshwater mussels to study potential impacts of Corps actions, but also to monitor known mussel beds for endangered species status and trends. I conduct bathymetric surveys for post-project monitoring, and enjoy analyzing and visualizing data for our projects and reports in geographic information systems,” he said.
Comparing existing and created soils
Commenting on his ERDC U project, McFarlane said, “I plan to examine differences in existing healthy and diverse floodplain forest soils on the Upper Mississippi River, compared to the soils we create for restoration projects. The living communities of fungi and bacteria within soils play a huge but understudied role in creating the above-ground ecosystems we see and interact with. Many thousands of acres have been restored on the Upper Mississippi River through the Upper Mississippi River Restoration program since the 1980s, providing an excellent opportunity to compare living microbes and soil development between our created sites and more naturally developed sites.
“I hope to come out of the program with information that will help Mississippi River resource managers understand more about the differences between natural soils and created soils. Ideally, we’ll be able to make recommendations for planning or construction techniques that will improve the success of the most desirable floodplain forest species. I’m also excited to develop long-term relationships with ERDC staff to continue research on this topic and help connect their knowledge and future advancements to our management decisions,” McFarlane said.
Pointing out highlights of his four-day kickoff tours, McFarlane noted that “I was also very fortunate that my mentor, Dr. Theiling, took the time to introduce me to several of his colleagues in the Environmental Laboratory and accompany me to tour Dr. Jacob Berkowitz’s soil research lab. Ms. Nia Hurst showed us around the equipment and discussed some ongoing tests and applicability to my project. Theiling [KHKCUC(1]also organized a meeting with Dr. Karl Indest and Dr. Carina Jung to talk technical details of their labs’ capabilities, which was fascinating.
“Of course, I also have to mention that the offsite tour of the Vicksburg National Military Park was phenomenal. I’m not a Civil War enthusiast, but Mr. Winschel really brought it alive. I knew when we pulled into the park that it was a[KHKCUC(2] once-in-a-lifetime tour,” McFarlane said, referring to ERDC Historian and Former Park Guide Terrance Winschel.