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Bridgit Watson and DWFI

Bridgit Watson and DWFI's Chuck Boylen

RPI Student Helps to Preserve a Vanishing Lake George

By Anthony F. Hall

Friday, December 9, 2011

“Land conservation is about stewardship, and we’re stewards of the history and the memories that attach themselves to land as well as of the land itself,” says Nancy Williams, the executive director of the Lake George Land Conservancy.

To help preserve that history, the Conservancy’s Board of Directors have initiated an oral history project, interviewing life long residents of the lake.

“There are a lot of families here who have been here for generations, so I’m certain we’re going to get some good stories,” said Williams.

The project was on hold, however, until Bridgit Watson, a biology major at RPI who’s participating in the university’s  Semester of Study at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, volunteered to conduct the first of what Williams hopes will be dozens of interviews.

According to Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer, the director of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, the project is well within the scope of the Semester’s requirements.

“The Semester includes an internship with environmental agencies and organizations, where they can get real world experience,” said Nierzwicki-Bauer. “We match them with an organization that will benefit from their skill sets, and we want them to gain new skills and additional knowledge.”

Watson gains intellectually, Nierzwicki-Bauer said, because “she’s learning about the lake from the people who feel deeply about it and its history. That’s a different perspective from what she gets by studying freshwater ecology or applied microbiology, but it’s a complementary one. It’s a different dimension of lake studies.”

Watson says she was attracted to the project because she felt it would deepen her knowledge of Lake George.

“Even though I grew up nearby, in Stillwater, I didn’t know much about Lake George,” said Watson. “So to hear from people on the lake about the changes they’ve seen is fascinating.”

Those changes are not limited to changes in water quality, though Watson said she’s heard many anecdotes illustrating a decline in the lake’s clarity. Changes in the landscape are also a recurring theme.

“People also talked about over-development, and even how expensive it’s become to live here,” said Watson.

Now in its third year, RPI’s fall Semester of Study at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute was designed for students interested in critical environmental issues.

“The semester of study at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute gives our students the opportunity to perform research that they often wouldn’t get the opportunity to accomplish in a traditional classroom setting and all right on the banks of one of the most beautiful lakes,” said Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer. “They are able to earn a full semester of credits while also contributing to the preservation and understanding of some of our most vital freshwater resources and ecosystems.”

The program includes two formal RPI courses in freshwater ecology and applied and environmental microbiology, a weekly seminar series on environmental topics that range from underwater archeology to bacterial genomics, an individual research project, in addition to the internships with local environmental organizations.

“We’re very pleased with the success of the program,” said Nierzwicki-Bauer. “Students tell us that it’s among the most positive experiences they’ve had at RPI.”

Because of the limited number of rooms available at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, only eight students can be admitted to the program at any one time, Nierzwicki-Bauer said, adding that she’d like to see the program grow.

“Our goal is to expand to whatever level our educational and residential programs can accommodate. We could offer a spring semester as well as a fall semester. Or, if the success of the program warrants it, we could consider pursuing additional housing,” said Nierzwicki-Bauer.

For Bridgit Watson, the Semester at DFWI appears to have been life changing.

“I’ve realized I don’t want to spend my career in a laboratory. If I pursue a PhD, it will be in environmental biology or sustainability studies. Paths are now available to me that I didn’t even know existed before coming to Lake George,” said Watson, who will receive  Bachelors and Masters degrees from RPI in 2012.

Watson will leave the Darrin Fresh Water Institute in December, but her research will become a permanent part of the Lake George Land Conservancy’s archives.

More interviews will be conducted in the future, with the help of other researchers, said Nancy Williams.

“Ultimately, these files will contain everyone’s best memories of Lake George,” Williams said.

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