Story Research

Preparing Tomorrow's "Green" Leaders

Alisia Ruble

In celebration of Earth Month, we highlight a few CSU students who are working to reduce human impact on the Earth through research and conservation.

​Cal State East Bay seniors Alysa Cacungao and William Farley prepare libraries for DNA sequencing in the university's Green Biome Institute​ (GBI) lab. Photo credit: CSUEB/Jonathan Crescenzo

​​“Everything in nature is connected in some way, and conservation should be the goal of modern society.”

—Cal State East Bay student William Farley

​A hallmark of CSU research is immersive student learning and discovery that address California's most urgent challenges. Students who participate in faculty-mentored research are better prepared for future careers, graduate education and leadership roles that contribute to their communities.

In honor of April being Earth Month, we highlight a few CSU students who are working on projects that aim to reduce our impact on the Earth and combat the effects of climate change and human development. Read about their work.


Restoring Habitats to Save Homes


​​​​CSULB graduate student Alyssa Taylor captures video of wetland wildlife like this round ray in a restored oyster and eelgrass bed as part of a multi-CSU monitoring project. Photo credit: Alyssa Taylor

​On the muddy banks of a Southern California bay, Olympia oysters and eelgrass are experiencing a resurgence thanks to a CSU project designed to help protect homes and wildlife habitats from the impacts of sea level rise caused by climate change.

According to the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC), the state's coast could face sea level rise of up to 1 foot by 2050 and 3.5 feet by 2100, threatening coastal communities. And data from California's Fourth Climate Change Assessment show that 31 to 67 percent of Southern California beaches may completely erode by 2100 without intervention.

Wetlands play a vital role in mitigating the effects of sea level rise because they are the first line of defense for many areas. They protect roads, residential areas and communities of plant and marine life that are important to the ecosystem. They have declined throughout California, unfortunately, due to coastal development and recreational use of bays.

Cal State Long Beach second-year graduate student Alyssa Taylor is one of about a dozen students helping monitor the​Lorem ipsum dolor sit ametFun fact: East Coast native Alyssa Taylor earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Elizabethtown College and made her way to California specifically to study under Cal State Long Beach Wetlands Ecology Lab Director Christine Whitcraft, Ph.D. progress of a project started in 2016 to bring the first living shoreline initiative to Newport Bay, a collaboration between Cal State Fullerton's Zacherl Lab, CSULB's Wetlands Ecology Lab and Orange County Coastkeeper. Faculty and students restored oyster and eelgrass beds at four locations in the bay.

“The two most common ways to combat sea level rise are to install a man-made structure, like a seawall, or use a living shoreline," Taylor says. “Both serve as a buffer from wave action and rising waters, but a living shoreline also supports diverse and abundant fish and invertebrate communities and serves several other functions."

Taylor says the group targeted Olympia oysters, which are native to the Pacific coast, and paired them with eelgrass in hopes it will inform future restoration techniques. The idea, she says, is that oysters and eelgrass facilitate the recovery of one another because they both help stabilize the sediment for each other.

“I monitor fish communities in the restored areas with video cameras and record how many of each type of fish there are," Taylor says. “Other students [from CSUF and CSULB] are specifically looking at invertebrates, eelgrass and oyster density, sedimentation levels and all sorts of different aspects of the project."

Faculty and student researchers share their findings and swap information at an annual summit they nicknamed “Oysterfest." Taylor says the teams are very collaborative—one of the benefits of being in a large university system like the CSU.

Community outreach to help people understand the benefits of restoring wetlands is a huge part of Taylor's work, too, she says. Through the partnership with OC Coastkeeper, she has organized an outreach event to teach local fishers to fish without harming oyster and eelgrass beds, and has produced an educational video targeted to the public as part of a conservation biology class taught by Dr. Whitcraft.

“Wetlands are an extremely undervalued system that everyone who lives on the coast, especially here in Southern California, should care a lot about," Taylor says. “If sea levels continue to rise [without intervention] it's their homes that are going to be lost first."

To learn more, visit the CSULB Wetlands Ecology Lab website.


Conserving California Native Plants


Cal State East Bay seniors William Farley and Alysa Cagungao are two student researchers working on native plant conservation, among other projects, in CSUEB's Green Biome Institute (GBI). Photo credit: CSUEB/Jonathan Crescenzo

California is a diversity hotspot, but more than 1,000 plants have been listed as threatened or endangered by the California Native Plant Society (CNPS). These plants are in danger of being lost forever without knowing much, or any, of their molecular biology profiles, as well as ecological interactions and potential human benefits.

Cal State East Bay's Green Biome Institute (GBI), located in the university's new molecular research lab, is focused on the conservation of these plants utilizing several omics profiling techniques along with seed and tissue banking. GBI is the first institute of its kind in either the CSU or UC system.​

William Farley and Alysa Cagungao are two CSUEB students who work alongside faculty members to collect plant samples, extract DNA for sequencing, which refers to the technique used for determining the exact sequence of nucleotides, or bases, in a DNA molecule. Prior to sequencing, libraries are prepared with many qualitative and quantitative measures along the way. This is just one of the myriad profiling efforts by the GBI to better understand these rare and endangered plants.

Researchers take a small amount of plant material and macerate the tissue using liquid nitrogen. Subsequent steps involve many rounds of various reagents which ultimately precipitates the DNA, whereby the DNA has been released from nuclei and isolated. After the DNA is isolated, libraries are prepared and then sequenced using Oxford Nanopore Technologies for “long-read" whole genome sequencing.

The “long-read" refers to a long intact DNA molecule, which gives researchers structural complexity information about the plant on a molecular scale, says William Farley, a CSUEB senior and GBI student research assistant. This will better inform scientists collaborating from many disciplines who share the common goal of conserving these important plant species.

“A good metaphor would be like a painting or a puzzle: Long-reads reveal more of the image than short-reads," Farley says. “To understand the complexity of our drought resistant plants, we want long-reads because large fragments of DNA make genomic assembly more accurate, but also provide more information compared to short-reads. The large fragments of DNA are easier to organize and analyze because of their size. There are fewer 'pieces' to the puzzle."

The GBI aims to create and archive various molecular profiles of the 302 endangered plants of California as classified by CNPS by 2026, through genetic and tissue preservation. The goal is to be able to provide sound, data-driven decisions concerning conservation land management for these plant species with the hope of saving species which are at the top of the rare and endangered list. Furthermore, these efforts continually increase collaborative relationships with botanical gardens and faculty within a variety of disciplines such as ecology, botany, chemistry and more.

Each project is conducted by CSUEB students and mentored by CSUEB faculty, fostering exceptional and meaningful student research opportunities to help grow tomorrow's leaders.

Cagungao says her experiences with the GBI have built her confidence and prepared her to work in a lab. Both she and Farley were recruited by GBI Director and Professor of Biological Sciences Chris Baysdorfer after taking a biology class with him.

"In the classroom, you get to learn the theory of biology but, in the lab, you are exposed to the practical side, which helps you gain skills," Cagungao says. “In the GBI, I get to do DNA isolation, quality control and library preparation multiple times, and there are additional techniques like flow cell loading and nitrogen grinding that are not done in lab classes."

To learn more, watch an explanatory video and visit the Green Biome Institute website.


The Hydrogen Wave is Swelling


The ​​​​Cal State LA Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility is the largest hydrogen and fuel-cell research facility at any academic campus in the United States.

As California prepares to say goodbye to fossil fuels, what does the future of fuel look like? According to some students at Cal State LA, it's hydrogen.

“Hydrogen technology is still in its infancy and the infrastructure is rudimentary compared to combustion engines or battery electric vehicles," says fourth-year mechanical engineering major Favian Orozco. “I believe that if I were to get into the hydrogen industry right now, there is a very big future for me."

Orozco works as a student operating engineer with the Cal State LA Hydrogen​​ Research and ​Fueling Facility, the largestLorem ipsum dolor sit amet Cal State LA fourth-year mechanical engineering student Favian Orozco. hydrogen and fuel-cell research facility at any academic campus in the United States. Students from multiple disciplines work in the station as interns and in the fuel cell course to complete labs and assignments related to the station.

The station is led by technical director David Blekhman, Ph.D., a professor of​ technology in the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Technology at Cal State LA. Dr. Blekhman was awarded a 2023 Wang Family Excellence Award by the CSU for contributions to his field and for facilitating student research opportunities.

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles are critical to California's goal of getting 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025. They are also a vital part of the state's work to achieve its climate change goals, improve air quality and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

At Cal State LA, hydrogen is made using a process called electrolysis, where the water molecule is split into oxygen and hydrogen using electricity. The processed hydrogen is then compressed up to 6,200 psi, or pounds per square inch, and placed in storage tanks. During vehicle fueling, the hydrogen is compressed again, this time up to 10,000 psi.

​“We are in charge of monitoring the systems to make sure everything is working properly," says Israel Gutierrez, a third-​​​Lorem ipsum dolor sit ametCal State LA third-year public health student Israel Gutierrez. year public health major who also works at the station. “Hydrogen needs to be stored at about -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the water we're using needs to be as pure as possible so it doesn't impair a vehicle's fuel cell."

Gutierrez and Orozco have been trained to operate the systems, perform maintenance and understand when to intervene and perform troubleshooting. They also serve customers, helping fuel the vehicles, answering questions about vehicle issues and educating the public on how hydrogen power works.

“We're also writing modules and curriculums to teach future students what we have learned from Dr. Blekhman with regard to the hydrogen process, safety protocols and more," Gutierrez says.

Both Orozco and Gutierrez attended the Marc and Eva Stern Math and Science School, one of two high schools located on the Cal State LA campus, and were inspired to become involved with the Hydrogen Station by their older brothers who attended the university.

The students say their experience has prepared them for future careers in the alternative fuel industry and environmental science and outreach.

“Hydrogen may not just be used for personal vehicles in the future," Orozco says. “Maybe the technology will be adapted for industrial applications, like freight trucks or forklifts in Amazon warehouses—or maybe even for space travel!"

For Gutierrez, the excitement comes from working with a technology that has the power to reduce carbon emissions and make the air cleaner.

“It provides us with real potential to transition to a more environmentally friendly fuel alternative," he says. “Because I've been part of Hydrogen Station and get to see how it's made firsthand, I can make an impact on the future of sustainability."

To learn more, visit the Cal State LA Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility website.


Rising to New Heights​


​​​​From left: Green Roof Project group members Yesenia Segovia, Chloe Meteigner, Jeni Schmedding, Pita Alvarez and Olivia Equinoa with associate professor Victoria Derr, Ph.D., (center) present their research at the CSU Monterey Bay Department of Applied Environmental Science Fall Capstone Festival.

Established in 1994, CSU Monterey Bay is the second-youngest university in the CSU system—the oldest being San José State, established in 1857—and the former military base is still growing. A group of CSUMB students hope to leave a lasting impact on the campus by informing efforts to implement a green roof that will contribute to sustainability efforts and provide a communal space for students and employees.

The Independent Study on Green Roof Feasibility for CSUMB project came out of an independent research studies class taught by Victoria Derr, Ph.D., an associate professor in CSUMB's Department of Applied Environmental Science. Several of the group's members, which includes Pita Alvarez, Olivia Equinoa, Evelyn La, Jeni Schmedding and Yesenia Segovia, were inspired to start the project after taking a research methods class taught by Dr. Derr.

Schmedding, an environmental studies major, says the class has taught her about the importance of citizen science and biophilic design, and broadened her perspective on how people use spaces to connect to nature.

“Green roofs promote and reconstruct the idea of biodiversity in urban areas," Schmedding says. “They can regulate building temperatures, help with storm-water management and increase vegetation biodiversity for habitat space. They also bring sustainability, nature and people together all in one shared space."

The team put out surveys to the campus community, especially students, to gauge the interest in having more green spaces, and conducted interviews with campus planners to discuss future campus plans and identify building projects and renovations that would support a green roof.

They also spoke with administrators working in sustainability and infrastructure at other universities like CSU San Marcos, for example, to better understand how to manage the project, how to get their proposal approved and how to get funding. CSUSM's University Student Union features a 3,000-square-foot green roof incorporated into its outdoor dining space, which consists of native vegetation that naturally cools the ballroom beneath. The space also incorporates a 100-kilowatt photovoltaic renewable energy system built on the conventional roof. 

All these efforts will inform the team's proposal, which they hope to present to campus planners this spring. They are also recruiting current students to continue advocating for a green roof at CSUMB after they graduate this year, acknowledging that building projects like these do not happen overnight.

​Alvarez says her favorite part about green roofs is how they bring the community together and help improve mental health. She says the team's proposal may include natural wellness areas, space for agricultural research and, potentially, student garden plots.

“We want the green roof to be somewhere you can be hands on to gather and connect with nature," Alvarez says. “And we want it to be accessible to everyone."

To learn more about sustainability at CSUMB and the critical role students play, visit the university's sustainability webpage. ​

The value of a California State University​ degree is unmatched. We offer an affordable, high-quality education taught by world-class faculty members along with strong career advising and hands-on experiences that ensure graduates are job-ready and highly desired by employers. The university works with industry professionals to ensure our more than 4,100 degree programs are relevant to California's workforce needs. Earning a CSU degree has the potential to change the trajectory of students' lives, as well as the lives of their family members, by opening doors to opportunities for upward mobility.