Life and research buds at park: Open house to let public see Notre Dame research plot at St. Pat's

Author: Joseph Dits, South Bend Tribune

 SOUTH BEND - Come next Sunday to the newly created researchers' playground at St. Patrick's County Park, and you may glimpse, as biology professor Jennifer Tank did, life after Colorado's recent floods.

Or at least you'll see how fast life can been reborn.

The family-friendly open house from 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 29, with free admission, will be the public's first peek at the two identical ecosystems that the University of Notre Dame's Environmental Change Initiative has built side-by-side at the park on Laurel Road north of Auten Road. Each boasts a 100-foot round pond, a wetland and a stone-lined stream that links them.

This will be a rare look since the university, for now, is figuring on just a couple of open houses per year at the Linked Experimental Ecosystem Facility, or ND-LEEF.

Faculty and students will give tours, show how they scrape samples of life from the pond, let you peer into dishes of tiny life and test for water quality. Kids will have a chance to try hands-on activities. With a tent for refreshments and rainy weather, researchers will talk about what they've learned since construction finished and research began in early July.

"The biology turned on really quickly," Tank, ND-LEEF's director, says about the first findings. "We had no idea how long it would be before they became real, before they became biologically reactive systems."

The water started to flow, pumped from a healthy supply of groundwater, channeling itself through the wetland and pond and sinking back into the soil at a nearby ditch.

Researchers kept checking the stream stones for a slippery coating -- a "biofilm" of algae and bacteria -- and tracked how many nutrients the tiny lifeforms were soaking up to build their bodies.

That soaking-up action began to plateau after six to eight weeks. Tank says that gave her hope for how quickly life could start up from scratch -- particularly in cases like Colorado's floods, where the huge gush of water scraped the streambeds clean. Her own research looks at how streams are affected by pollution and agricultural runoff.

She also talks with glee at the larvae of black flies that appeared in the streams.

"They love our little stream," she says, tickled to see macroinvertebrates (insects are among these tiny critters) join the habitat.

Sure, the flies bite, but she adds that it isn't clear if these late-coming larvae will hatch into flies before the frosty season begins.

Dozens of Notre Dame researchers and students are running studies at what assistant Director Brett Peters calls a "globally unique" project. When an Internet link is fixed, live data and a live photo will be streamed at

ND-LEEF can be found at the eastern edge of the park, just off of Laurel Road between the main park gate and the park's gatehouse. It's south of the 9/11 memorial, on what used to be just a flat field populated with little scrubby trees, some native, some not, and a mowed path, says St. Joseph County Parks Director Evie Kirkwood.

ND-LEEF is open to the public only when researchers are working at the property. You'll know that if you see the vehicle gate to ND-LEEF is open. They don't keep any predictable hours. They typically are there for a couple of hours at a time every other day, Peters says.

Research will stop in winter, when the streams (not the ponds) are drained to protect the water pumps.

There isn't a trail through ND-LEEF, but you can find a sign that illustrates and explains the project along a park trail just south of the 9/11 memorial. The sign overlooks the property, though you can't see much now except a shed and vegetation.

There are two ecosystems now for the sake of scientific comparison, but Peters says Notre Dame hopes to expand that to 12 -- as funding allows -- on the 28 acres that the university began leasing last year for 49 years. The leased land all stretches east of the current site.

The primary goal of the $1 million project is research. ND-LEEF officials say they want this to serve as an outreach to the community, too. It will host a Teachers as Scholars program on Oct. 9 for 20 local science teachers to learn about the research, though Peters says the program is now full.

It's still early. Life is budding. So is ND-LEEF.