Spring 2024 Issue:

of the

of the

How ecology instructor Natasha Woods’s island plant research may help our shores weather storms.

By Jeff Csatari, Photos by Will Hawkins, Spring 2024

This is a story about a shrub…and a fungus and a weed.

But it has nothing to do with tangy cocktails, hallucinogenic ’shrooms, or marijuana.

Or Monty Python.

The shrubbery in question is the leafy evergreen Morella cerifera; the “’shroom” is a mycorrhizal fungus; the “weed,” Spartina patens or cordgrass. And the story is about their symbiotic relationship, which may play a role in how devastating tropical storms impact the coastline of the eastern United States in the future.

It’s also a story about Moravian University students who drive to a beach in Virginia in a van packed with snacks, middle school kids who’ve never touched sand before, and an unlikely instructor of ecology who shunned the outdoors as a kid because she wasn’t very good at playing hide-and-go-seek.

Stay tuned.

Protectors of the Coast

Native, encroaching shrub Morella cerifera

Research on Hog Island

Natasha Woods, assistant professor of biology, is very easy to find on the third floor of the Collier Hall of Science. Just look for the large picture of the kingfisher and the shrub M. cerifera above the desk of the bubbly scientist from northeastern Alabama.

Woods recently earned a three-year, $503,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation that ties together shrub, fungus, and weed. The highly competitive and prestigious grant supports Woods’s project “Diverse Undergraduate Research Students in Ecology.” Her professor-student research is investigating changes in the vegetation on the barrier islands along a 68-mile long-term ecological research site, the Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR), on the Atlantic shore of the Delmarva Peninsula. Specifically, the research is conducted on Hog Island.

Woods and her team of undergrads are digging into a looming problem facing the Eastern Seaboard, a problem that’s likely to get worse in the years to come—violent coastal storms. It’s well known that hurricanes have been increasing in frequency and intensity in the past decades due to global warming.

When fierce storms batter the East Coast, their winds can cause coastal flooding and massive destruction as they did during hurricanes Irene, Sandy, and Matthew. But the coastline has a natural buffer system—barrier islands. Ideally, these islands bear the brunt of the storm surge, sparing the mainland a direct hit. But barrier islands are becoming fragmented. These long, narrow islands are being broken into smaller islands that don’t protect the mainland as well. Barrier island fragmentation is akin to replacing a football team’s 300-pound offensive linemen with scrawny water boys and hoping that your quarterback doesn’t get sacked.

The questions Woods and team are hoping to answer: What’s causing island fragmentation and why now? The answer may emerge by studying the shrubbery, the fungi, and the weeds living on those sandy lines of defense.

Protectors of the Coast

Helaena Holjes ’24 and Giselle Ponce ’25 starting their field day on Hog Island

Islands Are Meant to Move

Barrier islands are dynamic systems that constantly form and re-form, which is why they shouldn’t be built upon.

“We call them living shorelines because these islands move,” says Woods. “When they erode on the oceanside, and all that sediment moves toward the bayside; we call that ‘transgression toward the mainland.’ ”

This occurs because dune grasses hold sediment loosely, allowing barrier islands to “roll over” through wave action. It’s a natural evolution of the coastline, and it’s a good thing, Woods explains.

Enter the conundrum: the shrub, M. cerifera, a.k.a. the southern wax myrtle. For some reason, the shrub is moving into the dune grass’s neighborhood. Unlike grass, the shrub has a sturdy tangle of roots that hold it firm in the sand, resisting beach erosion. That may sound like a good thing, but it’s not—not on the ocean-facing dunes, which, you’ll recall, need to move. When the myrtle encroaches into the grassland areas and prevents the natural movement of the sand, the islands can fragment in grassy areas where the sediment is looser.

“The islands literally break apart,” says Woods.

Cobb Island, northeast of Virginia Beach, has fragmented due to shrub encroachment and sea level rise.

“Why should we care?” Woods asks rhetorically. “It weakens the protection. We think the hurricanes are bad now? If we lose these islands, we are going to be in big trouble.”

It weakens the protection. We think the hurricanes are bad now? If we lose these islands, we are going to be in big trouble.”

—Natasha Woods, assistant professor of biology

Protectors of the Coast

Natasha Woods shows how the percentage of grass coverage is measured.

The Root of the Problem?

M. cerifera is cold-intolerant, so it doesn’t normally hang out among the ocean-facing dune grasses. It typically inhabits the island interior. “Now, with the warmer winter temperatures we’re experiencing, it’s moving into the grasslands,” Woods says.

But while global warming is certainly a factor, there may be other reasons Morella is bent on beachfront living. That’s what Woods and team are investigating with their experiments.

In a “hoophouse” (think greenhouse) located on campus, senior biology major Julia Lapinska is dousing pots containing dune grass and Morella seedlings with salt water to replicate storm surges and test the hypothesis that the tall grasses may protect the salinity-intolerant shrub seedlings from a salty death. In other pots, she buries the grasses and shrubs in sand as they might look after a hurricane.

Senior Helaena Holjes is exploring the possibility of a symbiotic relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and the roots of dune grass that may be feeding the growth of the Morella shrub in grassland swales behind the dunes. Mycorrhizal fungi enter the roots of plants and help them to better absorb nutrients from the soil. In experiments, Holjes places some shrubs in proximity to fungus-infected grass (the control), and in other areas she cuts off Morella seedlings’ access to the grass’s root fungus by growing them in PVC pipes.

Giselle Ponce, a junior neuroscience major, helps with experiments, washing roots for analysis and weighing dried leaves and roots; she’ll take over her colleagues’ work next year. All three students duplicate some of these experiments in one-meter-square plots on Hog Island. The team drives from Bethlehem to Virginia during summer, fall, and winter breaks in a van purchased with grant money. Ponce oversees navigating on the five-hour drive, which due to her questionable GPS skills is nicknamed “Little Ponce’s Big Adventure.”

“The trip is full of fun and laughs and snacks,” says Ponce. “No matter what treat you ask for, Twizzlers to Swedish fish, Helaena has it in her bag.”

The students bunk in quarters at the VCR and ride a boat out to the barrier island. Graduate students from Virginia Commonwealth University mentor and collaborate with Moravian’s three research students on the island. Woods wanted her students to pay it forward by doing the same for young people from three of Bethlehem’s middle schools. Her proposal for the grant included plans to increase the impact of her research by exposing middle school kids to ecology and research science.

Woods says that’s the age when kids, girls especially, need to be exposed to the wonders of science: “My heart is in showing these kids how much fun ecology can be.”

During Moravian’s summer bridge program, Woods and her students instructed middle schoolers in how to build model sand dunes with grasses from the Virginia islands and try to blow them down using balloon pumps to simulate hurricane winds.

“The experiment showed the kids the impact of climate change on barrier islands, and it was super fun for them,” says Ponce, a native of Bethlehem who had attended Broughal Middle School on the south side of town six years prior.

Protectors of the Coast

Planting a Seed for Science

The middle school years marked the germination of Woods’s interest in science, and she pursued biology and ecology thanks, she says, to the teachers who encouraged her throughout her education. Growing up low income in Alabama, Woods is a first- generation college student who worked her way through school. She attended Jacksonville State University as an undergrad and graduate student and Ohio State University for her doctorate. She was the first African American female to graduate from the Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology program at Ohio State.

Woods says more diversity is needed in ecology: “Only one percent of people in the field of ecology identified as Black or African American the year I got my PhD. If you never see somebody who looks like you doing what you’d like to do, maybe you won’t try. My master’s advisor was a Black woman; my PhD advisor was a Black woman.”

Still, it took a leap of faith into a slimy pond to help Woods recognize her calling as an ecology instructor. She was working as a laboratory educator at Spellman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta. She taught ecology labs for the professors, taking pre-med students into the field.

Only one percent of people in the field of ecology identified as Black or African American the year I got my PhD. If you never see somebody who looks like you doing what you’d like to do, maybe you won’t try.”

—Natasha Woods, assistant professor of biology

“Up until this point in my life, I had no reason to do anything outdoors,” she said. “I was comfortable inside in my lab coat and gloves.” Woods shared that even as a kid she avoided the outdoors because her siblings loved playing hide-and-go-seek and she was terrible at hiding, always the first to be found.

One day at Spelman, she encouraged her students to hunt for salamanders in a pond, and they balked. “I don’t see any Black people in that water,” one student replied. So the next semester, Woods made a point of learning about the plants and animals in that pond ecosystem, and she trudged into the bog in her hip waders.

“After that, the students wanted to put on their waders and get into that water to explore, do bird watching, anything. It taught me that there was a huge need for role models in this field.”

In her fifth year as assistant professor of biology at Moravian, Woods appears to be already growing the ranks of young scientists who may follow in her waders. Her three mentees say they never knew research could be so rewarding and fun.

“On the island, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows,” says Holjes. “Imagine pulling a 50-pound cart of supplies a quarter mile over sand; you’re sweating, and bugs are biting, but you’re laughing the whole time. Dr. Woods is a phenomenal human being; she can make you smile even in the most peculiar situations.”

Holjes says the experience in Woods’s lab was so inspiring, she hopes to work as a field ecologist when she graduates. Woods clearly made an impact on at least one of those summer-program middle schoolers, too. “I really enjoyed the lesson you gave us today,” the youngster wrote in a thank-you card to Woods. “It was really fun, especially since I never played with sand before. I might start looking into ecology from now on.”

That noted warmed Woods’s heart.

“What I tell all my students is let your questions drive you—not your fears, but your questions,” she says. “That’s what got me in this chair, so you can do it, too.”

At Moravian

Students Help Monitor Reclaimed Superfund Land

Visit the 756-acre wildlife refuge at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center (LGNC), and you’d find it hard to believe that 400 of those acres, more than half, once lay barren, earning it the descriptor “moonscape”—the result of more than eight decades of exposure to toxic emissions from a zinc factory. Today it is a grassland rich with hundreds of species of plants and animals.

Since 2007, Moravian students under the guidance of Diane Husic, dean of the Center for Scholarship, Research, and Creative Endeavors, and the late Frank Kuserk, professor of biology, have been analyzing plants for the uptake of toxic metals and monitoring the return of biodiversity. Read the full story at news.moravian.edu.

Beehives Are an Outdoor Classroom

Dan Proud, assistant professor of biology, manages two beehives on the edge of campus across from the facilities office building. He doesn’t keep them to collect honey or to support the pollination of nearby flowering plants. He uses the beehives to teach students about pollinators and pollinator ecology. “Talking about bees leads to a conversation about pollinators, and not just honey bees,” says Proud. “We should be more concerned about saving native bees.”

The honey bee that we all know and love and feel we need to save, Apis mellifera, is a species native to Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia, not North America. These bees have a place in large-scale agriculture. Millions of honey-bee hives are managed and transported all over the United States to pollinate crops. It is estimated that there are more honey bees on the planet now than any time in our history.

North America counts approximately 4,000 native bee species, but for some of those species, extinction looms. Roughly 28 percent of bumble bee species are considered threatened, reports the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Between 20 and 45 percent of native bees gather pollen from only one species of plant, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). If the plant disappears, so does the bee, and if the bee disappears, the plant can’t reproduce.

Native bees are superior pollinators to honey bees, and for almost all crops, they are the primary pollinator or a significant contributor to the work of honey bees, says the USGS.

To support native bees, grow native plants. And since most native bees live in the ground, don’t clean up your gardens in the fall, advises Proud, and hold off in the spring to help natives overwinter.

1200 Main Street
Bethlehem, PA 18018
1 800.441.3191
FAX: 610.625.7930

Moravian University is committed to making its website accessible to all users. Should you find content that is inaccessible, please contact webaccessibility@moravian.edu or visit the Office of Disability & Accommodations.