Class to crunch social media data during UCI Road World Cycling Championships

Jennifer Ciminelli

Students in a class organized by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Office of Sustainability will log, map and analyze tweets sent by the 450,000 spectators anticipated at the upcoming UCI Road World Cycling Championships to learn how geographic information systems can impact green event planning.

“This assignment is really happening in front of them, so they can think on their feet,” said Wyatt Carpenter, VCU’s sustainability projects and program coordinator. The world’s elite cyclists will crisscross VCU’s Monroe Park Campus and MCV Campus during races and practices being held Sept. 19–27, with the finish line situated roughly halfway between the campuses in Richmond.

Carpenter will join Jennifer Ciminelli (M.S.’06/LS), research and data coordinator for the VCU Rice Rivers Center, to teach the special topics course, “Adaptive Response Modeling Using GIS” around the race. As the highlight, students will take part in a race-day exercise pulling social media feeds into GIS modeling to figure out how to best meet recycling demand from crowds of race fans.

“The race provides a really unique opportunity for us to have this type of situational awareness,” Ciminelli said. “When’s the next time we’re going to get a situation like this?”

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Tips gleaned from Portland trip influence plans for new community garden

VCU studied gardens at Portland Community College and Portland State University for ideas for the new Monroe Park Community Garden. Photo courtesy of Hasan Alkhairo.

Hasan Alkhairo and Alexandra Little (B.S.’14/B) recently returned from Portland, Oregon, an urban city where a modern food problem is being combated in an old-fashioned way. Parts of the city are considered food deserts, areas without ready access to supermarkets. Residents in those areas, which are typically low-income neighborhoods, must travel to other parts of the city to locate healthy eating options, such as fresh produce and whole foods.

In response, two higher education institutions in Portland have created community learning gardens that grow large amounts of food in a small space for the benefit of the local community while also providing opportunities for experiential education.

Virginia Commonwealth University already houses such a community learning garden on its MCV Campus. Thanks to the tips and knowledge Alkhairo and Little brought back with them, the university plans a second garden, this one on the Monroe Park Campus, by the end of the year.

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Life Sciences: VCU Rice Rivers Center receives $2.3M gift from longtime benefactor Inger Rice

Inger Rice has made a $2.3 million gift to support the Virginia Commonwealth University Inger and Walter Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences to fund a multibuilding overnight lodge and to contribute to the construction of a research laboratory on the property.

A $1.8 million portion of the gift will finance the construction of the overnight facility, which will have up to 30 beds where students and researchers will stay while they work at the living laboratory in Charles City County, Virginia. The other $500,000 will go toward the $6.7 million campaign to fund construction of a state-of-the-science building that will enable the scientists at the center to conduct all of their research and analysis on-site. Both buildings will be funded entirely by private resources.

“You can see it in a dream, but sometimes dreams don’t come true,” Rice said. “Now I will see the reality.”

For more than a decade, Rice has been turning her dream of housing a premier environmental research center at VCU into a reality.

In 2000, Rice gave 342 acres of land along the lower James River to VCU as a location for the university to build an environmental research and education center. In the subsequent 15 years, Rice has continued to financially support the center. In 2007, she donated $2 million for construction of the 4,900-square-foot Walter L. Rice Education Building, which is the first LEED platinum-certified building in Virginia. In 2009, Rice donated $1.2 million in recognition of the beginning of the tenure of VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., at the university and to establish the Inger Rice Endowment Fund, which supports maintenance of the center’s grounds and the education building.

“The internationally recognized environmental research conducted at the VCU Rice Rivers Center would not be possible without the continuous generous support from Mrs. Rice,” Rao said. “This latest gift will allow for VCU to continue to attract the country’s best scientists to our state-of-the-art facility, which will further enhance the quality of research and education at the center.”

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Life Sciences: Alumna wins prestigious grant

Alice Besterman (B.S.'13/L.S.)

Alice Besterman (B.S.’13/LS)

Alice Besterman (B.S.’13/LS) thought she would be an anthropologist, but she was wrong.  Her curiosity simply took a different turn.

Early in her studies at VCU, she transitioned to pursuing a B.S. in environmental science and quickly became immersed in ecological research. She participated as a student in the Panama Avian Field Ecology class in 2011, and from that experience became deeply interested in field ecology and avian research. Under the guidance of Dr. Lesley Bulluck (Biology and CES), she conducted an Independent Study, the goal of which was to examine how caterpillar prey resources might affect Prothonotary Warbler reproductive success.  Simultaneously, Besterman developed an interest in wetland ecosystems (thanks in part to taking Wetland Ecology from Dr. Ed Crawford) and pursued opportunities in wetlands research, including interning as a hydrologic technician for the U.S. Geological Survey.

After graduating from VCU, she enrolled at the University of Virginia, and is currently a first-year Ph.D. student working in Dr. Michael Pace’s lab, seeking ways to integrate her interests in birds, wetlands and ecosystem processes. Following up on previous graduate students’ work, she currently is interested in addressing the effects to mudflat ecosystems caused by an invasive seaweed, Gracilaria vermiculophylla. This invader proliferates on tidal flats throughout the barrier island/lagoon system along the eastern shore of Virginia. Previous work has found that this macroalga is associated with increased numbers of benthic invertebrates, as well as higher concentrations of pathogenic strains of Vibrio bacteria. Vibrio can become concentrated in the meat of filter-feeding molluscs, and so can pose a health risk to shellfish consumers. For her dissertation she is interested in investigating how the changes to the spatial dynamics of benthic invertebrates caused by this alga may lead to upward cascading effects for shorebird feeding, possibly resulting in changes to Vibrio abundance and distribution.

Recently, Besterman was awarded a fellowship from The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (often abbreviated NSF GRFP).  This program awards students early in their graduate careers with stipend and educational funds. Submissions must include a research proposal and also a personal statement describing the applicant’s interest in science, background, and future goals. Around 2,000 awards are given out each year across all fields of science. The fellowship provides $34,000 per year of stipend money given directly to the fellow, and $12,000 per year of educational costs for three years. Fellows also qualify to apply for NSF grants that foster professional development and research opportunities, such as internships with federal agencies and international collaborations.

VCU Life Sciences, the VCU Center for Environmental Studies and the VCU Rice Rivers Center all congratulate Ms. Besterman on her accomplishments and look forward to seeing the results of her ongoing research.

Life Sciences: Center partners with Charlottesville restaurants

An oyster shell recycling program through Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center has expanded its operations to Charlottesville. With help from volunteers, the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program will soon start collecting discarded shells from local restaurants. The shells, which would otherwise be sent to a landfill, will now return to the Chesapeake Bay to create a natural habitat for new oysters.

“Once prevalent and seen in huge piles, oyster shells have become quite scarce in the Chesapeake Bay,” said VOSRP director Todd Janeski. “We ensure the shells are returned to the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake as part of restoration activities.”

The Charlottesville expansion builds off an already successful program in Richmond, where more than two dozen local restaurants recycled more than 50,000 pounds of shells in 2014. Oysters provide critical environmental services such as filtering up to 50 gallons of water a day by consuming sediments and pollution. The filtration process plays a significant role in the clarity of the water column, allowing for aquatic grasses to grow and providing a critical habitat for young fish and crabs. The oyster reefs offer a valuable hard bottom habitat for larger fish and shoreline protection from wave and storm impact. Additionally, the decomposing shells help to maintain steady pH levels in the bay.

Oyster shell recycling provides local businesses with the opportunity to promote the protection and remediation of the Chesapeake Bay by becoming involved in the restoration of wild, native oysters. “I hate the idea of throwing away such a valuable commodity,” said Daniel Kaufman, owner of Public Fish and Oyster. “Sustainability is part of what we want to communicate to our customers and tossing oyster shells into a landfill doesn’t help our message.”

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Life Sciences: 1=2 during match grant

vcuriceriversresearchbuildingThe VCU Rice Rivers Center is delighted to announce that The Cabell Foundation has made a one-year, $1 million matching grant toward the campaign to fund our state-of-the-science research building. At 14,000 square feet, this critically-needed laboratory space will provide the capability for VCU Rice Rivers Center researchers to make great strides in building on a growing international reputation as an authority on large rivers, riparian landscapes and the life that depends on them.

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Third annual Battle for the Capital


The clock is ticking for the third annual Battle for the Capital!

Last year, your alma mater stomped the Spiders on the court AND in our alumni giving challenge. Help us do it again!

Make a gift (minimum: $5) online or through the Gold Line student calling program any time before midnight on game day, Feb. 25.

Visit to make your gift, learn more and follow the Battle live.