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Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC)

Anson H. Hines, Director

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) is the world’s leading research center for environmental studies of the coastal zone. These fragile regions at the land-water interface are the stage of the 21st century’s biggest environmental challenges, and their health is critical for the survival of both our oceans and our terrestrial environments. For almost 50 years, SERC has been addressing the need to understand the linkages between ecosystems in the coastal zone through critical research, professional training for young scientists, and environmental education.

A diverse and growing staff of 21 research staff composed of senior scientists, research scientists, and emeritus scientists, as well as an interdisciplinary team of more than 180 researchers, technicians, and students conduct long-term descriptive and experimental research addressing such issues as global change, the effects of nutrients and chemicals passing through our landscapes, maintenance of productive fisheries, changes to our environment from biological invaders, and protection of fragile wetlands and woodlands. Our accomplishments range from running some of the longest continuous ecological studies, to creating new technology that expands the horizons of science.

The research center, 25 miles from the Nation’s Capital, lies along the western shores of the Chesapeake Bay and serves as a hub for studies that extend around the globe. SERC’s main campus encompasses 2,650 acres of land along the Rhode River, a subestuary of the Bay, and includes forest, cropland, pasture, freshwater wetlands, tidal marshes, and estuary. Much of our research focuses on this subestuary and its 12-square-mile watershed as a representative model system for the enormous (64,000-square-mile) Chesapeake drainage basin. As a highly visible and fragile ecosystem on the doorstep of the nation’s capital, the Chesapeake Bay is indicative of the complex environmental issues facing the world.

Like the Chesapeake watershed, the Rhode River site has been impacted by human activities such as agriculture, forestry, and extensive commercial fishing, with an influx of diffuse pollutants in the tributaries and estuarine basin. The Re-search Center serves as a natural laboratory and a focal point for long-term monitoring programs and research projects.

Expanding outward from the main campus, SERC researchers conduct studies at field sites around the world—from Australia to Belize and Antarctica to Alaska. Visiting scientists come from across the globe to study at our central facility which has become one of the world’s premier training facilities for the next generation of environmental scientists—900 interns and 500 post doctoral, pre-doctoral and graduate student fellows from around the world have conducted research at SERC. On average 40 interns and 20 fellows participate in SERC’s professional training program annually.

SERC is the headquarters for the National Ballast Water Clearinghouse and a leader in the field of invasive species research. SERC houses the world’s longest data record on the increase in ultraviolet (UVB) solar radiation impacting the Earth, and developed the standardized tool for measuring UVB radiation. Our Scientists conduct groundbreaking research on human health issues such as mercury contamination in water and PCB’s found in wild-caught fish.


Lab Facilities: SERC’s general facilities include: a 92,000 square foot laboratory and office building; a 5,000 square foot shop equipped for fabrication and mechanical repairs; and specialized storage and office buildings. SERC’s computer center runs centralized Windows NT servers which support file services, data storage, e-mail, and internet access.  Computers are linked by campus-wide 100MB Ethernet connected to internet with T1 communication line. A variety of computer workstations operate within the network as are scanners, printers, color printers, large format plotter for maps, and color slide maker. Three full time staff support the information technology needs of the facility. Importantly, there are high-end computers and servers available for processing large files for GIS research.

Housing Facilities: SERC maintains one house for Visiting Scientists and Fellows and two dormitories on site. The first consists of six bedrooms each with two loft beds, dressers, and desks; communal kitchens, living and dining areas; and three bathrooms with showers. The second dormitory houses 18 visitors in 8 double rooms and two singles and has two communal kitchens.

Field Sites: SERC is a 1,072-ha protected, long-term ecosystem research center 40 km due east of Washington DC on Chesapeake Bay. A rural site located within the urban mid-Atlantic corridor, the SERC property is 65% of the Rhode River watershed, a sub-estuary on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay. Our location inspires the central organizing concept of SERC research which is linking watersheds to estuarine ecosystems. SERC is dedicated to ecological and environmental research, cutting across traditional disciplinary boundaries to investigate interrelationships of atmospheric, terrestrial, and aquatic environments, and studying ecological processes at a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. We use the special geographic features of the Chesapeake Bay to conduct long-term, intensive analyses of a complex landscape of interconnected ecosystems at the land/sea interface. SERC maintains a fleet of >15 field research vehicles for towing and accessing field sites.

Terrestrial Facilities: Terrestrial research is supported by a 50-ha permanent plot where trees are geolocated and censused at 5-year intervals for demographic dynamics and a wide-variety of ecological processes. A 16-ha subplot of this large forest plot is censused more frequently and is part of the ForestGEO network. Embedded in the ForestGEO plot is a NEON plot with a sophisticated array of instruments including an Eddy Flux tower, and second instrumented 50-meter-tall tower for access to the canopy-atmosphere interface of a mature deciduous hardwood forest There is also an experimental set up for global change manipulations and two greenhouses.

Aquatic Facilities: Estuarine research is supported by a full wet lab with flowing water systems and closed-loop aquaria rooms designed for invasive species containment. Access to the Rhode River is provided by a series of docks and access to other water bodies by a fleet of >10 vessels of various sizes. SERC maintains five stream weirs and two tidal flumes for continuously stream discharge and tidal exchange.

Wetland Facilities: The Smithsonian’s Global Change Research Wetland Facility consists of a 1,000 ft2 research lab, a 1,200 ft2 fabrication shop, three out-buildings totaling 1,000 ft2, and a facility for performing sea level studies. The facility has a 1,500 ft-network of boardwalks over the marsh (fig 1) and ample electricity. The lab has high speed Ethernet and wireless internet service that supports data transmission to the main campus located 3 miles away. The site is home to several long-term experiments on coastal wetland and forest responses to climate change, the oldest of which began in 1987 and is the world’s longest operating global change experiment.

Education Facilities: SERC’s Public Education Program is supported by a 900 m2 building on the Chesapeake shoreline for orientation and teaching of children, teachers, and other visitors. SERC provides limited dormitory and short-term residential housing for students and visiting scientists.

Informing Policy and Professional Training

For improved stewardship of the biosphere, SERC’s research provides data, publications and expert consultation in support of conservation, environmental policy, and management of natural resources. SERC’s research findings are communicated to other scientists through publications, conferences, workshops, and through extensive networks of research sites in the U.S. and in other countries.

Connected to an international network of collaborators, SERC trains future generations of scientists to address ecological questions through well-established undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral programs that attract participants from around the world. These include an ongoing internship program for currently enrolled undergraduate and beginning graduate students, and a fellowship program at the graduate, predoctoral, and postdoctoral levels. Visiting scientists from many countries conduct collaborative research at SERC, fostering international cooperation in solving global environmental problems. Decision makers often consult SERC for advice in managing natural resources, and news media seek expert comment from SERC scientists on environmental issues.

Education and Public Programs

SERC’s Education Department teaches K-12 students, teachers, and the general public about research conducted at SERC, historical land use, and the natural components of various ecosystems surrounding the Rhode River subestuary and Chesapeake Bay.

Through collaborations with other organizations, SERC’s message of estuarine ecology reaches a national and international audience. SERC has conducted more than 100 video conferences annually to reach schools in 50 states and four countries, and in recent years our electronic field trips attracted more than 81 million participants. From the regional community, nearly 20,000 people visit SERC annually, including 5,000 students (kindergarten through college), 7,000 program participants of all ages and 7,000 drop-in visitors joining in our hands-on science education programs and self-guided activities. Our education department also runs teacher-training workshops and educational programs for adults that are open to the general public including an evening lecture series and guided canoe tours of the estuary.

Research Staff

Duffy, J. Emmett, Director, Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network [or Senior Scientist for SERC]. B.S. (1981) Spring Hill College; M.S. (1983) University of Maine; Ph.D. (1989) University of North Carolina. Research specialties: Marine ecology and natural history; biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Contact:

Gilmour, Cynthia, Microbial Ecologist. B.A. (1980) Cornell; Ph.D. (1985) University of Maryland. Research specialties: Trace metal biogeochemistry, particularly mercury: mechanisms and control of microbial mercury methylation from the cellular to ecosystem level; microbial ecology of estuarine, lacustrine and wetland systems; sulfate-reducing bacteria and sulfur biogeochemistry. Contact:

Holmquist, James, Ecologist. B.A. Loyola Marymount University; Ph.D. University of California, Los Angeles. Research specialities: wetlands and climate change issues at the ecosystem scale, measure carbon storage rates in coastal wetlands using dated sediment cores, as well as contribute to models of coastal resilience in the face of projected sea-level rise. Contact:

Komatsu, Kimberly J., Global Change Ecologist. B.S. (2003) University of California, Irvine; Ph.D. (2013) Yale University. Research specialties: community ecology; mutualisms; biodiversity; ecosystem function; trophic interactions. Contact:

Lohan, Katrina, Ecologist. B.S. (2004) Southampton College of Long Island University; M.S. (2006) American University; Ph.D. (2011) The College of William & Mary. Research specialties: marine disease ecology; biogeography, biology, and ecology of marine parasites; ecological role of alternate hosts in marine disease systems; anthropogenic dispersal of marine parasites; molecular analysis of protistan and zooplankton communities. Contact:

McCormick, Melissa, Ecologist. B.S. (1992) Trinity University; Ph.D. (1999) Michigan State University. Research specialties: mycorrhizae; plant-fungus interactions; orchid-fungus interactions; molecular analysis of soil fungal communities. Contact:

Megonigal, J. Patrick, Deputy Director, Biogeochemist. B.S. (1982), M.S.(1986) Old Dominion University; Ph.D.(1996) Duke University. Research specialties: Wetland Ecology, Microbial Ecology, Soil Ecology, Biogeochemistry, Climate Change Impacts. Contact:

McMahon, Sean, Forest Ecologist. B.A. (1992) University of Texas Austin; M.A. (1993) University College of Dublin; M.S. (2006), Ph.D. (2006) University of Tennessee Knoxville. Research specialties: forest ecology; global change; community ecology of forest trees. Contact:

Miller, Whitman A.Ecologist. B.A. (1984) Earlham College; M.A. (1995), D. Env. (2000) University of California, Los Angeles. Research specialties: invasive marine species, ocean acidification, marine invertebrate ecology. Contact:

Neale, Patrick J., Photobiologist. B.A. (1976) State University of New York, Purchase; M.A. (1981) Columbia University; Ph.D. (1985) University of California, Davis. Research specialties: Effects of UV radiation on phytoplankton and other aquatic organisms; chlorophyll fluorescence as an indicator of plant biomass and photosynthetic rates; spectral measurement of solar UVB; UV in the aquatic environment. Contact:

Noyce, Genevieve, Ecologist. B.A. (2009) Mount Holyoke College; M.S. (2011) University of New Hampshire; M.S. (2012) King’s College, London; Ph.D. (2016) University of Toronto. Research specialities: Biogeochemistry, wetland ecology, microbial ecology, and global change.

Ogburn, Matthew B., Ecologist, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. B.S. (2001) Duke University; M.S. (2004) University of Georgia; Ph.D. (2008) Duke University Marine Laboratory. Research specialties: Marine and estuarine ecology; animal behavior and migrations; fisheries; conservation. Contact: OgburnM@si.eduParker, John D., Animal-Plant Ecologist. B.S. (1993) University of Virginia; M.S. (1998) College of William & Mary/VIMS; Ph.D. (2005) Georgia Institute of Technology. Research specialties: Community ecology, consumer-prey interactions, and invasive species. Contact:

Ruiz, Gregory M., Marine Ecologist. B.A. (1980) University of California, Santa Barbara; Ph.D. (1987) University of California, Berkeley. Research specialties: Population and community ecology of marine and estuarine ecosystems; animal behavior; larval recruitment of marine invertebrates; ecological parasitology; life history evolution; predator-prey interactions; invasion biology and transfer. Contact:

Whigham, Dennis F., Plant Ecologist. B.A. (1966) Wabash College; Ph.D. (1971) University of North Carolina. Research specialties: Ecology in terrestrial and wetland ecosystems; orchid-mycorrhizal interactions; role of disturbance in forests; ecological life history and population ecology of woodland and wetland species, ecology of invasive, landscape ecology. Contact:

Affiliated Research Staff

Breitburg, Denise, Emeritus, Marine Ecologist. B.A. (1975) Arizona State University; M.A. (1982), Ph.D. (1984) University of California, Santa Barbara. Research specialties: marine and estuarine ecology, hypoxia, fish behavior and ecology, gelatinous zooplankton. Contact:

Feller, Ilka C., Plant – Emeritus, Animal Ecologist. B.A. (1969) University of North Carolina; Ph.D. (1993) Georgetown University. Research specialties: Animal-plant interactions; canopy arthropods; wood-boring insects; mangrove; insects and elephant herbivory on Acacia forests in Kenya. Contact:

Jordan, Thomas E., Emeritus, Chemical Ecologist. B.S. (1974) Bucknell University; Ph.D. (1980) Boston University. Research specialties: Flows of nitrogen and phosphorus through watersheds, wetlands, and estuaries; denitrification. Contact:

Parker, Geoffrey G., Emeritus, Forest Ecologist. B.Sc. (1976) McGill University; M.S. (1981) University of Virginia; Ph.D. (1985) University of Georgia. Research specialties: Energy, water and carbon balance of forests; the forest canopy; atmosphere-canopy interactions; spatial variability, pattern, and scale; community ecology of forest trees. Contact:

Weller, Donald E., Emeritus, Quantitative Ecologist. B.A. (1974) Wabash College; Ph.D. (1985) University of Tennessee. Research specialties: landscape ecology; ecosystem ecology; ecological modeling; modeling nutrient cycling within ecosystems and nutrient transport among ecosystems; regional biogeochemistry; wetland and stream assessment; aquatic ecosystem health; land-sea interactions. Contact:

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