Feature Story

Raising the Bar

Peru Rainforest Research Students and Faculty

In the heart of Peru’s Amazon rainforest is a research station accessible only by a 100-mile boat ride down the Amazon River and its meandering tributaries.

The station is home to one of the world’s longest canopy walkways – 1,640 feet in length – providing treetop access to study the area’s biodiversity and microclimates.

For 25 years, Widener environmental science and biology professor Stephen Madigosky has collected temperature, rainfall, and humidity data there, looking for unusual climate events in one of the most stable environments on the planet.

“How these events correlate to global climate change has yet to be determined,” said Madigosky. “Our work centers on understanding some of these changes and how they influence plant reproduction, which may have profound implications for the entire Amazon Basin.” 

Each summer, Widener students like environmental science major Gabrielle Hance ’19, join Madigosky on these transformative trips. It’s a chance to see classroom studies come to life, to gain field experience preparing them for careers, and to contribute to the growing body of climate change research.

“This is showing me what kind of work I can be doing in this field,” said Hance, “and how when one thing happens in one part of the world it affects other areas.”

The research in Peru is one of numerous Widener student–faculty collaborations tied to studying and understanding the many aspects and impacts of climate change.

Impact on Fish Biology and Muscle Function

Professor David Coughlin and his biology students are wading into the affect that warming stream temperatures are having on Atlantic salmon and Pennsylvania brook trout, and the ability of these fish to acclimate. Warmer waters, for instance, require fish to expend more energy and can make reproduction more difficult.

“Brook trout could be the canary in the coal mine,” said Coughlin. “It’s an important predator in the system,” and losing the population could create a domino effect.

In a campus laboratory tank, students place fish in varying temperatures to run swim tests. They then analyze the fish’s muscle samples and measure gene expression.

“It’s like a human stress test,” said Coughlin “How do the fish maintain function? Can they activate genes to acclimate to temperature change?”

Juniors Katie Hittle and Liz Kwon have been part of the research team since freshman year.

“Climate change is such a big issue,” said Hittle. “You don’t think what you’re working on will be important. But for all we know, it will be.”

And analyzing fish muscle function is great experience for Hittle and Kwon, who, as pre-physical therapy students, will soon deal with human muscle mechanics. 

Impact on Physical Health

Across campus, nursing assistant professor Karen May and senior Delani Noёl are surveying school nurses nationwide to assess their knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors toward climate change.

School nurses, said May, are on the front lines of climate change-related illnesses, treating more frequent and severe cases of allergies and asthma caused by poor air quality.

“This affects kids’ health and impacts their academic performance,” said May.

For Noёl, an aspiring pediatric nurse, the survey project has “helped me see that nurses are not just focused on bedside or immediate care. It’s a more holistic, integrative approach. People need to become more climate-literate. Starting small, at the local level, that’s where it can all begin.”

Impact on Mental Health

Beyond physical health, climate change can impact mental health. That’s where social work professor Stephen Kauffman is directing some of his research.

Social workers, for instance, are tapped to help climate change refugees displaced by acute and prolonged events, from intense hurricanes and wildfires, to rising sea levels that make areas uninhabitable. Stress, depression, anxiety, and addiction often follow.

The trauma-focused model of Widener’s master of social work (MSW) program is an inroad to addressing these issues, said Kauffman, who teaches an environmental health policy course.

“The habitability of your environment is creating or reducing trauma,” he said.

Kauffman’s doctoral student, Sara Strayer, is focusing her dissertation on assessing how the next generation of social workers is being prepared to deal with this trauma. Strayer is surveying MSW faculty nationwide on how they integrate environmental justice and climate change content into their curriculum.

Strayer, who earned her MSW from Widener in 2009, is a former caseworker for child protective services, and witnessed firsthand the impact of environmental hazards on families.

“We can’t be ignoring these issues,” she said.

(Photo credit: Zan Usmani '21)

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