By Published: Dec. 17, 2019

CU Boulder environmental studies student gets a taste of ecological research via independent project


As she approached the end of her time at Boulder High School, Lydia Jones figured she’d soon be attending college in another state. 

“All the friends I’d made in Colorado were going to school in different places,” says Jones, 22, a senior majoring in Environmental Studies. “That’s what I thought I was supposed to do, too.”

But before launching her college career, she decided to take time off to attend a National Outdoor Leadership wilderness-education program in Baja California, Mexico. And it was there, more than a thousand miles from home, that she began seriously considering attending the University of Colorado Boulder.

We need to be looking at different dams and diversions, to assess whether they make sense for river ecology, but also for the culture of the area and to see whether benefits outweigh the costs. … It’s really important to realize that there are pluses and minuses; it’s really not a black-and-white issue.”

Lydia Jones climbing

Lydia Jones, a senior majoring in Environmental Studies, takes a break while climbing. Photo courtesy of Lydia Jones.

“One of guides there had gone to CU Boulder for environmental studies and was talking about how great it was,” Jones says. She looked into it, decided to stay home and has never looked back. “I’ve really loved it. I’ve really found my passion and it’s been great.”

She’s particularly pleased to have discovered the opportunity to undertake an independent undergraduate research project exploring the impact of dams on river ecology with instructor Ryan E. Langendorf. Teaming up with a faculty member, undergraduates can design projects that allow them to get a taste of researching their given topic in depth. 

“A lot of undergraduates don’t even know this is possible,” she says.

In fact, when she approached Langendorf, he didn’t, either. But he liked the idea, and starting last summer, Jones was hard at work learning about river ecology and consulting professionals in the field and a laboratory to design a small field project.   

“My own research has involved gathering water samples above and below two dams, two diversions that are part of (the city of) Boulder’s water supply,” she says. 

Using sampling and recording techniques gleaned from the professionals, she tested water for pH levels and then sent the samples to a laboratory to analyze them for dissolved nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen to gauge the health of the water beneath the dams. 

The project, while too small to be statistically significant, has given Jones valuable field experience and the data will be available to future researchers. She hopes to publish a piece on her research in a popular-science journal or website and give presentations about the work to non-governmental organizations. 

“Pretty much every river today is dammed, and it can be an extremely controversial topic,” she says, noting that Proposition DD, a Colorado ballot measure to allow and use revenues from sports betting on water projects, narrowly passed in November. 

With science continuing to accumulate about the impacts of global climate change, issues involving water, water supply and dams are only going to become more critical, Jones says. 

“This is a very legitimate issue. We need to be looking at different dams and diversions, to assess whether they make sense for river ecology, but also for the culture of the area and to see whether benefits outweigh the costs,” she says. “It’s really important to realize that there are pluses and minuses; it’s really not a black-and-white issue.”

Interested in learning about undergraduate research?
 Students interested in undergraduate research can get contact the CU Boulder Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which offers consultation, workshops and research grants to undergraduate researchers. Other opportunities for support are available through the university’s Biological Sciences Initiative