MTSU student tackles Stones River Watershed diversity using next-gen sequencing techniques

They technically won’t start a nearly yearlong research project until July 1, but an MTSU biology researcher and an Honors College student already are off and running on a mission to collect DNA from water in the expansive Stones River Watershed.

Research assistant professor Cole Easson and rising senior Jacqueline Williams not only have charted their strategy, but ventured recently — with map, collection bottles and other equipment — to Walter Hill Dam and many of the 10 locations where they will check water quality during the fall and winter.

They will map aquatic diversity using next-generation sequencing techniques relative to land use in the surface waters in the river.

The Stones River Watershed Association and a campus committee chose the Easson-Williams proposal that included a $6,500 stipend. Outgoing MTSU College of Basic and Applied Sciences Dean Bud Fischer informed them of the selection, saying he “looks forward to seeing the results from this research.”

Old Fort Parkway, Barfield Park, Nice’s Mill, Readyville Mill, Fall Creek and Stewarts Creek are among the river locations they will investigate.

“In addition to sampling the diversity in the stream with the water filtration, we want to monitor the water chemistry and Jaci’s going to map land use in the watershed and see if that correlates with diversity,” said Easson, an MTSU faculty member since 2018 who has ongoing coral reef research in the Florida Keys.

“Does the water chemistry and the land use sync up with what we see in diversity?” he added. “… We’re sampling across the watershed to get a nice view of these parameters at different spots.”

An Honors Transfer Fellow from Dyersburg State Community College, Williams, 22, of Drummonds, Tennessee, near Brighton, said “what we’re doing is really cool. I am an organismal biology and ecology student. This combines both really nicely because we are doing a biodiversity survey and it’s in the watershed, which gives us experience in the field and in the lab.”

Williams will write her Honors thesis about the project and must present the research at College of Basic and Applied Sciences’ Scholars Day, the Tennessee Academy of Science or another similar event.

Cynthia Allen, environmental specialist in MTSU Environmental Health and Safety, said this is Stones River Watershed Association’s first research stipend to benefit the MTSU campus and “has pledged to contribute $6,500 annually toward research at MTSU as funding allows from member donations.”

“The association is an all-volunteer organization, so donations go directly to local efforts which also supports the protection efforts that benefit streams and aquatic wildlife in our local stormwater jurisdictions,” Allen said.

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