Sylvia Jacobson, ENST Ph.D. Student, Ventures Deep into Mud Through a NOAA Fellowship to Explore Wetlands and Coastal Resilience

Sylvia Jacobson in the salt marsh at Monie Bay.

Image Credit: Jared Wilmoth

December 18, 2023 Jonathan Stephanoff

When Sylvia Jacobson, an Environmental Science and Technology (ENST) Ph.D. student, embarked on her research project focused on Chesapeake Bay wetlands, she began trudging through more than just mud and marshes. Her summer was a deep dive into the heart of environmental resilience and a hands-on exploration of nature's intricate responses to climate challenges. Knee-deep in wetland waters, Jacobson’s journey is a vivid illustration of where passion for the environment meets scientific inquiry.

Jacobson is midway through a two-year Margaret A. Davidson Fellowship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in partnership with the Chesapeake Bay-Maryland National Estuarine Research Reserve. She finished her M.S. degree in 2022 with wetland plant ecologist, Dr. Andrew Baldwin and is now working with Dr. Jared Wilmoth, a soil chemist. Her fellowship focuses on the ecological dynamics of coastal wetlands and seeks to gain a deeper understanding of how these wetlands are responding to sea level rise and other environmental changes seen throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.

“It's hard to explain what it's like until you're out there–they're really amazing ecosystems,” Jacobson said of our coastal wetlands, explaining, “in addition to the unique plants that live there, they support so many birds and insects–just looking at the number of different dragonflies out there is incredible.” She added, “One special thing about wetlands is they're not an ecosystem that the general public spends a lot of time in because they're really hard to navigate.”

There are three main wetland reserve sites around Maryland that Jacobson is working with: Otter Point Creek, Jug Bay, and Monie Bay. Teams have been monitoring and collecting data from these sites for over a decade. “The first part of the fellowship was actually doing analysis of their long-term monitoring data to look at changes in plant communities over time … how they are going to persist or how they are changing under sea level rise,” Jacobson said. The second part of the fellowship is investigating soils as indicators of ecosystem changes. She spent the summer conducting fieldwork and is now analyzing the samples in the lab. 

“A lot of the work for the fieldwork is not the day of, but preparing for the [fieldwork] day, so that when everyone gets there everything is ready,” she said. The team would travel to the locations by boat or canoe, though canoe days were Jacobson’s favorite, collect soil samples with an auger at specific depths, and install PVC pipes with pressure sensors to track water levels. Wetlands in July are hot and swampy; Jacobson explained that at cooler times of the year you could wear waders and other protective gear, but to stay cool the teams spent much of the summer soaked in mud. She said, “I always manage to get mud all over my face––it’s part of my look.”

Through the fieldwork this summer over 250 soil samples were collected, allowing Jacobson and the Maryland Reserve to add an additional soils layer to their data sets. The goal is to analyze soil microbial communities and soil carbon composition. “They can be an indicator of changes that are happening … and reveal some of the mechanisms of why and how these communities are changing, or not, under sea level rise,” she said.

Most of Jacobson’s fellowship days are now spent in the lab as she analyzes the DNA and the carbon composition of the samples. “I’m also thinking about what product I can give back to the Maryland Reserve. In addition to the research findings, I’m trying to make them easily reusable code and data analysis tools that they can use to look at changes over time as they continue to monitor these sites in the future,” she said. A final component is also creating educational and outreach materials about their wetland sites–something they can use when teaching fourth graders or community members.  

In creating educational materials, Jacobson translates her research and bridges the gap between complex scientific concepts and community awareness. This aspect of her work is indicative of ENST’s commitment to not only studying the environment but also educating and engaging the community in these crucial matters.

Her work has already yielded some interesting trends. In working with the historical plant community data, she said, “Monie Bay, for example, is a poster child for ghost forests and sea level rise … you would expect really dramatic plant community changes.” Instead, what they have seen in the decade of data is a more nuanced picture at the landscape level. Jacobson is quick to point out this could be due to limitations of point sampling or the timescale of the data, but also, “if some marshes can be resilient and hold on in the face of sea level rise … we want to understand those sites!”

Through the NOAA fellowship, Jacobson’s work sheds light on coastal wetland ecological dynamics, a crucial piece of our region’s environmental conservation. The data and samples she is working with are more than academic exercises; they are pieces of a larger effort to understand and protect these vital ecosystems in the face of environmental change.

ENST’s approach to environmental science education is grounded in the belief that real-world experiences forge the most profound understanding. Jacobson’s journey exemplifies this–using innovative tools and methodologies, her research is at the forefront of environmental science. However, it is not just about using the latest technology, it is applying these tools to make tangible contributions to environmental knowledge.

Joining our program means being part of a community where inquiry, innovation, and impact converge. It’s a place for those eager to explore, understand, and contribute to environmental sciences. We invite you to be part of a journey that extends beyond academia into the realms of real-world change and environmental stewardship.