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Down by the Bay

Not far from the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 95 in Woodbridge, Virginia, there is an oasis where the Occoquan River joins the Potomac River called Belmont Bay. Ospreys, herons, river otters, and other creatures are thriving there. People like it too, and housing developments have sprung up nearby. In fact, George Mason the man made his home, Gunston Hall, not far from there.

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Potomac Science Center. Photos courtesy of Chris Jones.

George Mason University freshwater ecologist Chris Jones will tell you there isn’t another place like it on Earth, and he means it. “The area is environmentally unique. It is a freshwater tidal basin. The salinity of the water is basically 0, and it has unique flora and fauna.”

This special place is the setting for the university’s newest research facility, the Potomac Science Center, which opens officially this fall. The $32 million, 50,000-square-foot waterfront building is home to the College of Science’s Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC) and its Center for Geospatial Intelligence.

Chris Jones

“We have an international reputation for both of these areas of research,” says Peggy Agouris, dean of the College of Science. “It is a great opportunity for the College of Science to have a facility that can house these two areas of inquiry together. They are linked, but also distinct, in the sense that by working together they can address human-centric problems, nature-centric problems, and all the areas in between.”

For more than 30 years, PEREC researchers have been studying this ecosystem with the goal of developing greater understanding of the ecological conditions of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. A multidisciplinary center, PEREC includes scientists from the Departments of Environmental Science and Policy, Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Earth Sciences. Eight of those researchers have state-of-the-art labs in this new building.

Geospatial intelligence uses imagery and geospatial information to gather data about human activity. When you track your morning run with an app on your smartphone, you are using a simple form of geospatial information. Mason’s Center for Geospatial Intelligence focuses on research that relates to geospatial information analysis, modeling, and visualization.

“These researchers are coming together to help us understand the environment and the effect of people on the environment,” says Agouris.

And that’s just the beginning. Social media, what researchers call “open source” data or “volunteered” data, has added a new layer of information to this complex field.

In addition to dedicated labs for researchers, the new facility has two teaching labs, a geoinformatics training center with a visualization lab, classrooms, a hands-on discovery lab for K-12 students, faculty offices, a public display area/ exhibit space, and a large multipurpose meeting room that will also be available to the community, according to Jones, who is the director of PEREC. “

Community education is a vital component to PEREC’s mission, and the waterfront facility will enhance our education activities and outreach,” says Mason environmental science professor Cynthia Smith, PEREC’s K-12 educational director.

Since 2009, Smith and her team have delivered watershed educational experiences to more than 80,000 middleschool students in the Prince William County and Fairfax County public schools. Mason graduate students serve as field interpreters for these field trips, helping youth gather and identify aquatic invertebrates, such as insect larvae, and conduct water chemistry measurements to better understand watershed health.

The Potomac Science Center is in good company near this part of the Potomac River. A short distance away are the Occoquan Bay and Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuges, Pohick Bay Regional Park, and Mason Neck State Park. Jones says two National Park Service trails run through the property: Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail flows along its waterfront and the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, “which runs across our patio.”

Jones and colleague Kim de Mutsert will be the first faculty members to hold classes in the new facility. The three Environmental Science and Policy classes—EVPP 550 Waterscape Ecology and Management, EVPP 555 Lab in Waterscape Ecology, and the lab for EVPP 350 Freshwater Ecosystems—will start this fall semester.

“I envision this building to be a showcase of the world-class research we are doing at Mason,” says Agouris.

Photos by Evan Cantwell, MA ’10