Overlooking the relationships between man and the natural world is a common human mistake. “People think natural ecosystems are beyond us, but we are a part of them,” says Steven MacAvoy, environmental science professor. “And we need to get a handle on how these systems work in order to mitigate the inevitable stresses that we put on them.”
MacAvoy strives to shed light on these systems’ workings by tracing the migration and utilization of nutrients within natural ecosystems, particularly in freshwater and oceanic systems. Most aquatic ecosystems include nutrients that are introduced to them when migratory fish die or excrete wastes; in order to determine how important a role migratory nutrients play in these ecosystems, MacAvoy is examining the rates at which indigenous fish populations consume them.
He explains, “If we don't understand how these fish are growing and where their nutrients are coming from, there is a chance that we will inadvertently disrupt or limit the nutrient flow within systems we depend on.”
Studying migratory nutrient patterns has implications beyond preserving food sources. MacAvoy is exploring the possibility of applying similar processes to track migrating bird populations, a process that may offer insight into the spread of avian-borne diseases. He is also working in collaboration with Department of Environmental Science colleague Karen Bushaw-Newton on two proposals examining the effects of pollution in the Anacostia River.
MacAvoy’s myriad projects have also given his students the opportunity to both participate in hands-on research and gain coauthorship on articles published in peer-reviewed journals. “One of the benefits of having a really bright student body is that they take these [scientific questions] by the horns and wrestle with them,” MacAvoy says. “Many master's degrees don't result in publication, but here we have AU undergrads that are publishing. We are bucking the trend.”