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Mason's Chris Jones on boat on river outside Potomac Science Center

George Mason University freshwater ecologist Chris Jones will be among the first faculty members to hold classes at the new Potomac Science Center, home to the College of Science’s Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center and the Center for Geospatial Intelligence. Photo courtesy Sam Kittner

Researching on the Dock of the Bay

For more than 30 years, Mason ecologists have monitored the Chesapeake Bay watershed to find ways to help the ecosystem repair itself. The university’s new Potomac Science Center provides a space to elevate and showcase this environmental research.

Not far from Interstate 95 in Woodbridge, Virginia, the Occoquan River joins the Potomac, forming an oasis called Belmont Bay. Ospreys, herons, river otters, and other creatures are thriving there. George Mason the man made his home, Gunston Hall, not far from there.

George Mason University freshwater ecologist Chris Jones says there isn’t another place like it on Earth. “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.

“We have an international reputation for both of these areas of research,” says Peggy Agouris, dean of the College of Science. “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 studied this ecosystem to develop a greater understanding of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s ecology. The multidisciplinary PEREC includes scientists from the Departments of Environmental Science and Policy, Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Earth Sciences. Eight 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’re 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.

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

In addition to dedicated labs for researchers, the 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, 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 middle-school 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, which 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—start this fall semester.

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

For more information contact  Colleen Kearney Rich.