Standing knee-deep in Nebraska’s Niobrara River, Kayla Vondracek balances herself in the fast current, reaches beneath the water and searches for traces of algae. It's a wet, tiring process — but Vondracek, a senior, is enjoying every minute. Since coming to Nebraska in fall 2018 as an environmental studies major, Vondracek has been motivated to help protect the natural world. Her experiences through the university last summer have given her the scientific edge she was searching for, as well as the opportunity to study one of the biggest rivers in her state.
Through Nebraska's UCARE program, Vondracek traveled to the Niobrara with several other students to assess how human recreation on the river is potentially impacting its aquatic ecosystem. She completed the project under Jessica Corman, assistant professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Natural Resources.
"A lot of people think of a river as a recreational opportunity, which it definitely can be, but it also feeds into groundwater and different things we need that are essential to life," Vondracek said. “Understanding how we're impacting it might help us understand how to protect it.”
The Niobrara is a destination for thousands of tourists each year, who take to its waters for kayaking, tanking and a variety of other recreational activities. Through their research, Vondracek and Corman want to ensure that the river stays healthy and vibrant for more visitors to enjoy in the future.
"One of the biggest things that I always think about is how lucky we are, in a place like Nebraska, to have the freshwater resources that we do," Vondracek said. "Only about 2.5% of the water on earth is freshwater, and even a smaller percentage of that is drinkable freshwater. It's so important to me that we protect that."
To assess tourism’s impact on the river's water quality, Vondracek and her team members turned to a tiny, green plant floating beneath its surface — algae. Because of a high sensitivity to changes in pH and nutrient concentrations, algae is a great indicator of overall health of an aquatic environment. It also sustains life throughout the river.
"The main thing that we wanted to recognize with algae is that it's a big producer of oxygen in the water," Vondracek said. "That oxygen is really essential to fish and other aquatic species, which then go on to feed different wildlife, so it's just a big chain reaction."
On an initial scouting trip to the Niobrara in May, Vondracek and her project members met with the National Park Service and other fisheries and wildlife agencies to identify areas of minimal, moderate and heavy human activity on the river.
While some areas of the river are well-traveled by tourists, others are federally protected, meaning that they are largely untouched by human recreation. That protected section, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, served as the group's minimal activity control group.
Because of large amounts of rainfall last summer, Vondracek's team battled high waters during the collection process. Scraping algae from rocks on the river bottom was just one part of the equation — they were then filtered, frozen and stored in film canisters to shield them from sunlight.
After visiting 17 collection sites over weeklong trips in June, July and August, Vondracek brought her algae samples back to the group's Hardin Hall lab on East Campus, where she spent weeks analyzing them for answers.
"Sampling is one of my favorite things to do. It gets a little tiring toward the middle of the day when the sun's at its highest, but it's still worth it," she said. "Being on the river in the morning was so amazing, and being able to pass this information onto people is going to be really cool."
"I've always loved the environment and being outside ever since I was a little kid," Vondracek said, describing her lifelong hobbies of kayaking and camping.
However, for a time, that passion wasn't always her career plan. After graduating from high school and attending college in her home state of South Dakota for a year, a variety of financial and health-related struggles interfered with Vondracek's plans to go to school. For three years, she worked full time at a post office.
Vondracek met her husband during that time and moved to his hometown of Verdigre. The change of scenery, along with her husband's support, served as motivation to go back and earn a degree. "When I moved to Verdigre, it was a really scenic area near the Niobrara River and the Missouri River," Vondracek said. "I saw that beauty again, and I thought, 'I want to do everything I can to protect these resources.' It fueled me to want to go back to school and figure out a career path, to wherever it takes me, to be a part of protecting our last natural resources and preserving that for people to enjoy."
Energized by those new possibilities, Vondracek enrolled in classes at a community college with the goal of obtaining an associate's degree in agriculture. Beginning an eventual bachelor's degree with community college courses isn't the most common route for students — but Vondracek said it was the perfect fit for her at that time in her life.
"For me, it was important to get back into education slowly and to build myself up to it. Taking years off, you're like, 'Oh, gosh — school again?' " Vondracek said. "But it went so much better than I planned."
When it came time to graduate, Vondracek was ready to dive into an environmental studies career at Nebraska. "I wanted to take advantage of a Big Ten education, and I've definitely been happy with that decision," she said.
Vondracek and her husband moved to Lincoln before her first fall semester in 2018.
“I was just shocked at all the opportunities that there were, being from a small town,” Vondracek said.
When she started classes at Nebraska, Vondracek imagined she’d go into the teaching side of environmental studies. However, after taking several required science classes, her mindset changed.
“I never envisioned myself as being a scientific, technical person, but going through chemistry and plant and soil science really helped me realize how much I enjoy being the person with my hands in the dirt and water,” Vondracek said.
In the lab on Nebraska’s East Campus, Vondracek gets down to work — meticulously going through dozens of algae samples to assess their chlorophyll content.
After refrigerating and preserving the algae in acetone, she then places each sample under a spectrophotometer. The device sends light through the algae and computes the wavelength at which it is being absorbed.
“It’s been really interesting to learn all these different processes. I had done that in chemistry labs before, but never to this extent. And it’s a lot different when it’s your data and you get to put it all together at the end for a research poster,” Vondracek said. “It’s just teaching me a lot.”
Following the standard two-year track in the program, Vondracek will continue to develop her research under Corman during the 2019-20 academic year. She’s enjoyed the unique experience of working side-by-side with a faculty member and now hopes to incorporate research into her future career.