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Biologist Raises Funds to Study Health of Staten Island Ponds

By Nicholas Rizzi | April 27, 2015 12:22pm
 Seth Wollney started an online fundraiser to get $17,000 to study the health of ponds in the borough.
Staten Island Pond Study
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LIGHTHOUSE HILL — A biologist has launched a fundraiser to research the effects of humans on ponds in Staten Island and develop steps to create healthier spaces.

Seth Wollney, 34, a doctoral student at the College of Staten Island, is trying to raise $17,000 to study seven ponds across the borough.

The study will track the different kinds of organisms that successfully exist in the ponds to figure out the best conditions for them to thrive in newer bodies of water at Freshkills Park, Wollney said.

"I wanted to set up a study program where we selected a whole bunch of ponds that had different ages, had different habitat types surrounding them and had different human influences over time," Wollney said.

"With the ponds in Freshkills only being about 20 years old, we wanted to study all the different variations that could occur within our area and see if there's any particular restoration or conservation actions that could be taken to really optimize the health of those ecosystems."

Wollney has already been studying two ponds on Staten Island — including one at Freshkills Park — for several years for his dissertation, but wants to expand the data collection to five others.

Most studies of ponds focus on a particular type of organism living inside them, but Wollney said he wants to study everything from microbial life to turtles.

To get the data, Wollney will use an environmental DNA (eDNA) process in which he collects two gallon samples from the ponds over the summer and sends them to a lab that singles out the cells of each organism and sends massive spreadsheets back with the data.

Wollney can use the data to chart the different biodiversity in them and figure out what conditions create the healthiest ponds in the city.

"We're trying to figure out what the physical environment is like, then we can associate how complex or robust or degraded the biological community is," he said. "That will help us figure out what kind of actions can be taken at Freshkills Parks."

Since it's become extremely difficult and competitive to win grants for studies, Wollney decided to try to raise the money on a crowdfunding site called Experiment.

Unlike other crowdfunding sites, projects on Experiment still have to go through a peer-review process and Wollney only gets the funds if he meets or exceeds his goal. So far, he's raised nearly $3,000 on the site with 24 days left, but he's gotten some offline donations from residents.

Wollney needs the funds to buy supplies to test for different trace metals in the water, hire two research assistants and pay for the eDNA testing.

He said the research is important because ponds serve as a natural water filtration space. They're also the center of life for many animals in the city — including ducks and turtles.

Aside from those benefits, Wollney said green spaces simply just make residents happier to live near.

"People need to have open spaces and park land for recreation purposes and to feel happy," Wollney said.

"If we had more ecologically healthy parks in cities around the world, we'd have healthy, happier human communities."