A 'turbo-charged researcher

3/17/2008 - By: John Trent

Research projects have a number of interesting variables attached to them, whether it’s the design of the work, the support of federal, state or local agencies, or even the personalities of the researchers involved.

But in John Umek’s case, one of the common threads in his graduate research work is his 11-year-old Golden Labrador Retriever mix, Turbo.

Umek adopted Turbo when she was eight weeks old. Since that time, he says, “She has accompanied me in the field throughout her life.”

Umek, 30, who recently completed studies for his master’s of science degree in fisheries ecology in the Department of Biology, has the kind of research interests, however, that go beyond being simply dog-friendly.

He works closely with mentor and adviser Sudeep Chandra, an assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, on a number of important research projects in the rivers and lakes of Nevada.

The effort is to, in part, document the contemporary food web structure in these waters. By studying changes in water quality, their research helps the scientific community better understand predator and prey interactions. Such issues are critical in the future of desert terminal lakes such as Walker Lake near Hawthorne, which has seen its water level drop more than 100 feet over the past century.

“Knowledge of the food web structure and its changes provides a critical foundation for understanding predator-prey dynamics and resource competition,” Umek says. “The use of this information can characterize the health and unhealthy river and lake ecosystems and determine proper courses of action for conservation of native fisheries, invertebrates and plant communities.”

Life in the Field

An avid outdoorsman, Umek, originally from Bellevue, Idaho, doesn’t mind the field work that comes with his research.

He can often be found along the Walker River, which feeds Walker Lake with mountain runoff, collecting data on invertebrate and fish communities at different reaches. This data from the lake is imperative in the creation of water quality profiles during a particular water season.

Umek says his enthusiasm for his work has been fortified through his relationship with Chandra, whose research agenda stretches from the lakes and rivers of Nevada to overseas locales in Siberia and the Far East. Chandra’s work with fellow researcher Zeb Hogan to help save some of the world’s largest fish – the so-called “Megafishes” project – has been chronicled on National Geographic.

“Professor Chandra has had a tremendous influence on me,” says Umek, who hopes one day to work in watershed restoration for a government agency, such as the United States Geological Survey, or in a private watershed restoration organization. “My interests have shifted from species specific research (like fish), to entire ecosystem processes. It’s basically taking a single species research a step further and looking at as many processes as possible that might affect that one species or the entire food processes.

“Professor Chandra’s enthusiasm and interest in his students and their research is unmatched.”

So, too, is their love of animals. Chandra, as well, is often accompanied during his field work by his dog.

Of course, of late, Umek has noticed that Turbo has slowed down a bit. She is, after all, 11 years old.

“Lately I’ve been trying to get down to Walker as much as possible,” he says. “However, Turbo does like her place on the couch. She seems to have shifted her allegiance to my wife … who spoils her like crazy.”


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