Insights from a Storm’s Fury

May 13, 2015 | by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs

For someone who confesses to a lifelong dread of severe storms, Nicholas Dylla was surprisingly pleased to be spending part of last summer waiting for a hurricane.

Dylla, a senior biology major from Plainfield, was working as an undergraduate researcher at Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, Maryland, investigating the effects of heavy rainfalls on nitrous oxide concentrations in streams and rivers. The project was part of a Research Experiences for Undergraduates project funded by the National Science Foundation.

Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas and contributor to climate change. In agricultural areas like Maryland’s Eastern Shore, storm runoff from fertilizers is one of the chief sources of nitrates in waterways. So Dylla found himself parked at the edge of a cornfield alongside a tributary of the Choptank River for about 18 hours on the Fourth of July, waiting to collect water samples from the creek as Hurricane Arthur surged just offshore. For once, Dylla was happy to see a storm coming.

“It was what we had been waiting for,” he said of the storm.

Dylla was measuring levels of nitrous oxide in four streams in the Choptank River Basin, and the coming storm would offer insights into how rainfall affects nitrous oxide flux from waterways to the atmosphere. “We knew the storm would be awesome for our research and so when it came, I felt lucky. That storm gave us some really significant results.”

Dylla found a decrease in nitrous oxide concentrations in rivers and streams he sampled during storms, even as levels of dissolved oxygen in those rivers grew. His findings suggest that heavy rainfalls caused an increase in the gas exchange that is a source of atmospheric nitrous oxide emissions.

To gather his data, Dylla spent much of the summer knee-deep in the inland waters of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Even the threat of heavy weather couldn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the work.

“The field work was the best. It was like a treat for me,” he said. “I was always ready to be outside, doing the hands-on stuff. Nature is always changing, and that makes it exciting.”

Dylla presented his findings at the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography conference in Granada, Spain, in February.

His summer investigation in Maryland was just one in a series of research postings that have given Dylla an early taste of some diverse areas of biology. A plant physiology course with Elmhurst Professor Paul Arriola led to a 2013 internship as a terrestrial ecologist at Argonne National Laboratory. Later that year Dylla joined the lab of Argonne biophysicist Philip Laible, where he has worked over the past two years.

“It has given me a really strong foundation,” Dylla said of his research. “I feel like I can talk to all kinds of scientists now.”

For all his accomplishments as an undergraduate researcher, it wasn’t only science that drew him to Elmhurst. A four-time all-conference golfer and captain of his undefeated varsity team at Plainfield Central High School, Dylla chose Elmhurst for the chance to compete athletically without compromising his academic work. He golfed for the Bluejays for two years before giving up the sport to devote more time to research.

After graduation, Dylla plans to pursue graduate work in aquatic biogeochemistry. He wants to continue his research into the environmental effects of storms like the one he rode out in Maryland last summer. His experience there has left him with a newfound appreciation for heavy weather.

“When I think of the cool data that came out of it, I have a different kind of respect for that storm,” he said.

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