Pitt Transforms Its Pymatuning Ecological Lab's Facilities, Curriculum, and Outreach

Issue Date: 
August 21, 2012

Pymatuning Ecological LabAsk Aaron Stoler, a University of Pittsburgh PhD candidate in biological sciences, to channel memories from his first summer at Pitt’s Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology (PLE), a University-owned and operated laboratory nestled deep within the 21,000-acre Pymatuning State Park, and this is what he remembers: the smell of Indian food, a consistent humming of box fans, and sweat. Lots of sweat.

“There weren’t a lot of amenities at the facility back then, the common cooking area always smelled like the leftovers from an Indian restaurant, and it was a humid summer,” he said. “Trust me. We spent a lot of hours sitting in front of that fan.”

Despite the suffocating heat of his first summer, Stoler willingly returned—for the next five summers!—to take refuge at Pymatuning Lake in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where, while bragging to his friends about “playing in dirt for a living,” he delved deep into the marshes and swamps to study how plants and animals live in various conditions. Before long, his woes about hot dormitories and shared-kitchen catastrophes dissipated as the PLE Facilities staff tackled one renovation after another on the 320-acre site, providing students with a well-appointed modern summer classroom.

Over the course of the last decade, many enhancements have been made to the 60-year-old PLE, which is located in Linesville, Pa., and run by Pitt’s Department of Biological Sciences. The focus of the upgrades has been on accommodations, the curriculum, and program outreach. And the result? Summer courses featuring expert instructors, a site providing cutting-edge research facilities and outreach resources for K-12 teachers, and an attractive location for conferences and retreats.

Just this month, PLE received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Field Stations and Marine Laboratories program to construct a new laboratory building. Citing cost savings associated with PLE facilities staff constructing the building, Rick Relyea, a Pitt professor of biological sciences and PLE’s director, said the $350,000 grant will help construct a building that will be valued at about $1.2 million. With construction scheduled to begin in July 2013, the proposed 3,600-square-foot building—containing three new research laboratories—will provide additional space for PLE’s new and current bird researchers. The building also will include a sterile lab space for researchers working in molecular and microbial biology. Construction should be completed by April 2014.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for our instructional research and outreach activities at Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology,” said W. Richard Howe, associate dean of administration and planning in Pitt’s  Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. “As important as it is for the future of PLE, it also provides an opportunity to reflect on the recent history of PLE that is responsible for this recognition from the National Science Foundation.”

From Rustic Summer Camp to Modern Research Facility

The dining hall. The kitchen. Four classrooms. Laboratories. A new storage building.

These are just several of the renovation projects that have breathed new life into PLE over the past five years under the direction of Relyea.

“The quality of the living environment is just as important as the curriculum and research,” said Relyea. “So we began construction projects even when our enrollment numbers were low. Since then, PLE has seen the numbers of students, teachers, and researchers taking advantage of our facilities grow at an unprecedented rate, and a big part of that increase is because of the renovations.”

Under the leadership of Nick Mihailoff, PLE facilities manager, dedicated PLE staff members worked not only to enhance the facility’s visual appeal, but to make it functional and modern, as well. The first step was replacing the furniture—all beds, couches, and chairs—for the dormitories and cabins that sleep 120 people. They added air-conditioning and built new bathrooms. They completely overhauled the kitchen and dining hall. Knocking down eight old, unused buildings, they constructed multiple state-of-the-art research facilities. They secured new computers, lining the tables with them in a renovated computer lab. Additionally, they equipped the entire facility with wireless Internet, so students could be as “connected” as they wanted during an outdoor summer.

Relyea credits the dedication of a powerhouse maintenance staff, who’ve gone above and beyond to get the campus up to speed.

“The entire PLE staff is on board and dedicated to what we’re trying to accomplish here, from the maintenance staff and secretary to the site manager and housekeeper,” said Relyea. “For example, when the kitchen wasn’t going to be ready, Nick Mihailoff came in every weekend for four weeks—including Memorial Day—just to finish the project in time for the students. You rarely see that level of dedication.”

The staff even improved the dining hall selections, where residents eat three times daily. PLE now partners with the catering service of Rebecca’s Family Restaurant, a landmark on the main street of Linesville. The students, Relyea says, are big fans of Taco Tuesdays, claiming that the food is comparable—if not better—than mom’s home cooking.

“Students want three basic things: a nice place to live, good food, and great courses,” said Relyea. “We now offer all of those things, and we offer it in a beautiful location.”

Flocking to the Lake

Since 2007, Pitt enrollment at PLE has increased by 130 percent. The laboratory has gone from offering seven or eight courses—in fields such as wetland ecology, forest ecology, and ornithology (the study of birds)—to 11 or 12. Relyea noted that PLE’s unique approach, incorporating a mix of in-classroom instruction and outside fieldwork, seems to resonate with students.

“Students have told us over and over that the courses at PLE were their favorite courses in all of their four years at Pitt,” said Relyea. “They can’t get this experience anywhere else; they are learning about the environment, seeing it firsthand, and doing it in an idyllic setting on the shores of a lake.”

Anyone can enroll in the three-week courses at PLE, which are run as a cooperative program, known as the PLE Educational Consortium. While PLE is operated by Pitt’s main campus, the educational consortium has grown over the past five years to include Pitt-Bradford, Pitt-Greensburg, Pitt-Johnstown, Pitt-Titusville, Clarion University, Edinboro University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and Slippery Rock University. These universities and regional campuses enroll students at PLE, and their faculty members engage in instruction, all of them attending and working alongside Pitt students and faculty. Tuition is the same as a typical class, and scholarships are available.

With the increase in enrollment has also come a surge in the numbers of active researchers at PLE. The number of research days has increased by 45 percent since 2007, as a plethora of national and international researchers spend their summers at the lake. The number of publications by PLE researchers has increased from an average of three per year (between 1950 and 2000) to 21 per year in the past decade. And Relyea speaks with pride about the working relationships that have developed between researchers and graduate and undergraduate students, whose work has been featured in prestigious academic journals.

“Both the administration [of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences] and I agree that we should share this space—the dominant center of ecological research in the region—with students and researchers from around the region and around the world,” said Relyea.

The director noted that continued support from University deans— including Howe and N. John Cooper, Bettye J. and Ralph E. Bailey Dean, Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences—has been integral to the successful inclusion of numerous partnering institutions at PLE.

A Wilderness (Re)treat

PLE prides itself on conducting outreach across Pennsylvania and offers the NSF’s Research Experience for Teachers, a program inviting K-12 schoolteachers to spend the summer conducting cutting-edge research that is ultimately published in the world’s leading journals.

PLE also conducts workshops that aid teachers in their curriculum and instruction. One of the recent workshops in ecotoxicology—the study of the effects of toxic chemicals on biological organisms—had space for 12 teachers, and nearly 80 teachers applied. Relyea notes that, with the construction of the new laboratory building, PLE’s outreach will be an even larger effort, targeting in particular low-income schools in Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Opening its doors to academics looking for a retreat, PLE also serves as a conference location. Whether it’s a workshop for 12 or a retreat for 150, PLE accommodates a wide range of groups, including Pitt’s Departments of Biological Sciences, Human Genetics, and Optometry; Pitt’s School of Law; and the University Honors College. Likewise, classes from Pitt, the University of West Virginia, Clarion and Youngstown State universities, and Buffalo State University have visited for weekend trips. The facilities have also been enjoyed by such local groups as area troops of the Boy Scouts of America. With affordable rates, comfortable lodging, and high-quality meals, conference participants say they leave feeling not only academically nourished, but literally restored, said Relyea.

“I’m amazed at what we have accomplished in five years, and we’re still not done,” Relyea added. “We’re going to continue to grow all of our missions, and research will flourish. We hope to add more courses, hold more conferences and retreats, and conduct outreach to K-12 schools. That’s our expectation, and we have everything in place to do that. We owe a great deal of thanks to the University’s Department of Biological Sciences and the deans who allow us to invest in such an important resource for not only the Pitt community—but for Western Pennsylvania as well.”