Marsh Trip Evokes Memories for Science Alumni

Thursday, June 17, 2010

While Rider’s Lawrenceville campus buzzed with the excitement of returning alumni and friends during Reunion Weekend, Dr. Mary Leck, professor emerita of Biology, was giving a lesson on freshwater marsh ecology and preservation some 12 miles south.

During a field trip to Trenton-Hamilton Marsh, spanning parts of Bordentown and Hamilton N.J., on Saturday, June 12, approximately 15 alumni, faculty members and guests were able to gain a glimpse into Leck’s work inside the John A. Roebling Memorial Park. Leck has conducted research on seed germination and has led countless field trips to the marsh since 1975.

The recent field trip was an idea that evolved from a conversation between Dr. Jonathan Yavelow, assistant dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Education, and Sciences, and Wright B. Seneres ’97, chair of the Science Alumni Affinity Chapter and an environmental scientist at Bach Associates, PC, in Haddon Heights, N.J.

As Leck led the group on a walking tour of Watson Woods and Abbott Bluff trails, she pointed out Jewelweed, a green leaf plant with orange and red flowers, which first attracted her to the area. Jewelweed has long been used to treat poison ivy, rashes and other skin disorders. Later, Leck showed another type of herbal plant, Leonurus or Motherwort, which has been used to treat heart conditions and pregnancy complications. Those plants are among the 900 species of plants identified by Leck and her husband, Charles, in the marsh area.

Leck explained that the freshwater marsh is not only rich in wildlife, but also history. The Watson House, built in 1708, is the oldest house in Mercer County. Indian artifacts dating back almost 10,000 years have been found inside the park. In the early 1900s, the park held an amusement park, and Leck pointed out its remnants, including a crumpled stone staircase.

For some science alumni, the Reunion Weekend field trip invoked memories from their undergraduate years at Rider.

Dr. Russell Burke ’02, who was there with his wife, Candy Burke, said he remembered how Leck introduced him and his classmates to the area’s plants and algae on their field trips. In fact, during the alumni trip, when Leck asked if anyone knew the name of a particular plant, Burke immediately called it out — aerenchyma.

“I was always impressed by that system,” said Burke about the intertidal plants of the marsh. As a marine scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at The College of William & Mary, Burke studies the native oyster reefs in the York River Estuary of Chesapeake Bay and changes in the watershed.  He said that he was able to apply the lessons he learned from Leck’s field trips to his current work because the ecology of intertidal areas are very similar to salt systems.

While Diane Pupa ’84 did not have any classes or field experiences with Leck, she does remember Geology trips, including the one to the Blue Ridge Mountains, which she took with her classmates and Dr. Jonathan Husch, now of Geological, Environmental, & Marine Sciences (GEMS) department.

Pupa, an environmental scientist and supervisor at the N.J. State Department of Environmental Protection, said the impact that the Rider faculty had on her was huge. “They prepared you very well for the real world,” she added.

Leck said she continues to run field trips to the marsh as a way to educate others about the ecology systems and the importance of preserving open space. She called upon one trip where she led a group of students from Trenton Central High School in the mid-1990s.

“The students were out there in hip boots. It was such a fantastic time,” Leck remembered. “It changed their attitude about science and made me aware about how important this place is as a resource for education.”

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Science alumni, faculty and guests take a trip to the Trenton-Hamilton Marsh.