VICKSBURG, Miss. -- Professional networking opportunities stirred U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) St. Paul District Biologist Aaron McFarlane’s interest in applying for the U. S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) University, where he is now participating in a six-month session to expand his environmental expertise.
Now in its fifth year, ERDC University partners USACE [LRBCUC(1][JDWE2][JDWE3]division and district participants with ERDC subject matter experts to expand participants’ knowledge about technical solutions.
Sponsored by ERDC’s Office of Research and Technology Transfer and the Directorate of Human Capital, ERDC University’s first week in March featured briefings [LRBCUC(4]at the ERDC’s Vicksburg headquarters, followed by interactions with assigned mentors and tours of four of the center’s seven laboratories.
McFarlane shared that he participated in the St. Paul District’s Tier II Leadership Development Program. His mentor, Dr. Rebecca Seal-Soileau, suggested contacting people within the USACE to learn how they view their work and pursue their passions. During this quest, he contacted ERDC Environmental Laboratory Research Ecologist Dr. Charles Theiling.
“One of the people I reached out to was Dr. Chuck Theiling, because I’ve always seen him as driven and successful in infusing his passion into his work for the Corps,” McFarlane said. “He mentioned ERDC University during our call. It sounded like a great opportunity to see a different side of the Corps, explore some of my interests, build some new relationships and hopefully learn something new about the Upper Mississippi River environment where I work. I immediately began thinking about my application and coordinating with my supervisor and managers, who have been extremely supportive and helpful in making this experience happen for me.”
As a team member for St. Paul District’s Regional Planning and Environment Division North, McFarlane manages environmental review and planning for the operation and maintenance of the upper Mississippi River’s nine-foot navigation channel, primarily related to dredging and dredged material management. McFarlane’s bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, focused on environmental science, policy and management, including environmental review, GIS and soils.
“Our district dredges about one million cubic yards per year, and many of our activities require biological surveys for endangered or protected species, permitting and interagency coordination,” McFarlane said. “I strive to develop and encourage opportunities for beneficial use of dredged material.
“I’ve had the opportunity to plan several projects to use dredged material for ecosystem restoration to construct islands to improve habitat for birds, fish, plants and more. I plan and lead sampling efforts for freshwater mussels to study potential impacts of Corps actions, but also to monitor known mussel beds for endangered species status and trends. I conduct bathymetric surveys for post-project monitoring, and enjoy analyzing and visualizing data for our projects and reports in geographic information systems,” he said.
Comparing existing and created soils
Commenting on his ERDC University project, McFarlane said, “I plan to examine differences in existing healthy and diverse floodplain forest soils on the Upper Mississippi River, compared to the soils we create for restoration projects. The living communities of fungi and bacteria within soils play a huge but understudied role in creating above-ground ecosystems. Many thousands of acres have been restored on the Upper Mississippi River through the Upper Mississippi River Restoration program since the 1980s, providing an excellent opportunity to compare living microbes and soil development between our created sites and more naturally developed sites.
“I hope to come out of the program with information that will help Mississippi River resource managers understand more about the differences between natural soils and created soils. Ideally, we’ll be able to make recommendations for planning or construction techniques that will improve the success of the most desirable floodplain forest species. I’m also excited to develop long-term relationships with ERDC staff to continue research on this topic and help connect their knowledge and future advancements to our management decisions,” McFarlane said.
Pointing out highlights from the laboratory tours, McFarlane noted that “I was also very fortunate that my mentor, Dr. Theiling, took the time to introduce me to several of his colleagues in the Environmental Laboratory.”[LRBCUC(6]
“Of course, I also have to mention that the offsite tour of the Vicksburg National Military Park was phenomenal. I’m not a Civil War enthusiast, but Mr. Winschel really brought it alive. I knew when we pulled into the park that it was a[KHKCUC(7] once-in-a-lifetime tour,” McFarlane said, referring to ERDC Historian and former Vicksburg National Military Park Guide Terrance Winschel.
For more information on the ERDC University program, visit: