This past summer, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Alain Plante to research soil science and biogeochemistry, focusing upon the mechanisms controlling decomposition of soil organic matter and carbon cycling.
In eastern Pennsylvania, there are large amounts of carbon in the form of hard coal, also known as anthracite. This enabled extensive mining in the anthracite region, causing infiltration of coal into the surrounding environment and waterways, consequently impacting environments downstream. This caused soils near the Schuylkill River to become contaminated with anthracite, though the effects of this contamination on carbon cycling and microbial activity is currently unknown.
Lab incubations are a common method of measuring the respiration rates of soils, which provide information about the soil’s microbial activity and rates of organic matter decomposition. While this method does not produce absolute values for soil respiration, incubation data can be compared to like data from other soils to compare their microbial activity levels. In order to measure the microbial activity of the anthracite contaminated soils, I performed a lab incubation on soil samples that were collected and dried in 2019.
During the first few weeks of the project, I worked alongside Dr. Plante to learn about the incubation process and the proper use of the equipment used to measure CO2 concentrations in gas. We also worked to determine the best experimental setup and soil sample size for the incubation, and I performed short trial incubations to determine the best timing for measurements. Throughout this period, the lab group participated in a literature review to understand and discuss the recent developments in the soil science community’s understanding of organic matter decomposition.
During the next two months, I performed two separate incubations, the second being a repetition of the first. I measured the respiration rates of soils from four locations in a contaminated region near the Schuylkill River, and the sample locations have decreasing concentrations of anthracite as the distance from the river increases. The rates of individual layers, known as soil horizons, were measured and compared, leading us to observe the highest respiration rates in the samples of the surface horizons closest to the river.
Prior to my PURM research opportunity this summer, I had minimal research experience. This project allowed me to develop a better understanding of the research process, while I was also able to develop skills related to lab work, preparing me for future research opportunities. This experience and mentorship opportunity with Dr. Plante also allowed me to learn a significant amount about soil science and the current state of research within the community, leading me to redirect my current course of study due to the amount of growth possible within the field and its relevance in the climate crisis.
To see my poster, visit Penn Presents: https://presentations.curf.upenn.edu/poster/microbial-activity-anthracit...