Franklin & Marshall College biology lab conducts research with real-world impact on the College’s home city of Lancaster.
When you think of a city, you likely picture gleaming skyscrapers and gray concrete, but in Lancaster, home of Franklin & Marshall College, great strides have been made utilizing green infrastructure. From rain gardens to streetside trees, the city has added these elements in an effort to mitigate the effects of stormwater runoff—which leads to the pollution of Chesapeake Bay—while simultaneously beautifying the city.
Sybil Gotsch, associate professor of biology, has long been interested in studying the rain gardens’ performance, not only as a way to diversify her own research portfolio, but as a way to lend a neighborly hand to the city, which didn’t have the necessary resources to do the research on its own. After adjusting her Plants and the Environment course plan to accommodate the compressed module schedule (a tactic resulting from the pandemic), it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
“My goal was to provide a meaningful research opportunity, something that’s applied and that was clearly in the context of our local environment,” Gotsch said. “This project has developed organically, and this is the first time where a more cohesive and comprehensive project started to gel.”
Hannah Deane, a junior dual environmental science and biology major, said she was thrilled when she learned of this project because she hadn’t yet experienced a lab revolving around an urban environment.
“It can be hard to make the connection between urbanization and nature,” she said. “We don’t typically think of concrete as being some part of the water cycle, but this class has challenged that notion and others like it.”
Lena Berry, a senior environmental science major, described the class working as a research team, visiting downtown Lancaster to measure various components of each garden and analyzing the results.
“These different measurements let us know if the gardens are doing their job and slowing down the rainwater that runs off of the roads,” she said.
Deane said the task was challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
“Managing the measurements of 56 different gardens, spread out all over the city, in a six-week course during a pandemic is no small feat,” Deane said. “With the revisions and guidance Professor Gotsch offered during the lab, I’m confident as a class we gathered a high-quality dataset.”
Berry said that working in downtown Lancaster wasn’t something she would’ve thought to do, but the urban application of ecology was eye-opening and enjoyable.
“This project was a really exciting opportunity to do research that could make a difference in the lives of people who live in Lancaster. It’s a good feeling to have the work you do be applied and make an impact,” she said.
Collaborating with Lancaster to study the city’s rain gardens not only provided students with a distinctive research opportunity, but it also provided them a chance to get to know F&M’s home city more intimately.
“Now when I walk down Lancaster’s streets, I can recognize a rain garden,” Deane said.
Curious to learn more about this project? Sybil Gotsch and City of Lancaster collaborator Kate Austin were featured on a podcast that profiles the work of F&M professors and their community partners who have received funding from F&M's Center for Sustained Engagement with Lancaster.Listen now