Thoughts on Science
I expect that anyone reading this has at some point been a 'learner'. By that, I mean that a teacher in a classroom has tried to divest some kernel of knowledge to you. This semester, I have truly traded the role of learner for the role of teacher for the first time. This isn't to say I have no teaching experience. I have been a substitute teacher several times when professors were out of town. I have given presentations with the intent to educate on many occasions. I have run educational programs at fairs and festivals. I even taught two sections of Freshman introductory biology. But this is the first time that I am responsible for a full semester of teaching and the content of the lectures is of my own design.
This is not to say that I am lacking outside guidance. Even the most skilled and experienced teachers draw upon lesson plans and resources developed by others. For my part, I have looked to faculty members, syllabi from the internet, and a couple of text books to ensure that there aren't any topics that I'm missing and to get ideas of activities that are both logistically possible and academically practical. I'm afraid I'll have to skip the field excursions to coastal habitats since the 16 hour road trip was discouraged. And since we recently completed phase 1 of moving our entire department, my prep time has been cut far shorter than I would like, so I was unable to find equipment and prepare chemicals that might have allowed a more technical laboratory experience.
One side-effect of putting the course together as a bit of a last-minute proposition is that I am prone to making little mistakes. A perfect example of this happened this week when I was teaching about aquatic invertebrates, a topic I feel tremendously comfortable with. To provide a top-notch lab experience with large and interesting specimens, I reached out to a friend at the DNR to see if they had anything they could loan me. Instead, Randy gave me a second Christmas! He had a large collection of aquatic invertebrate specimens, all from Missouri, that were collected 10 or more years ago - they only keep most of their specimens for a few years since they eventually become brittle and are prone to degrading. On Saturday, I was handed a quart jar that was about a third full of all sorts of critters! On Monday, I hurriedly identified invertebrates and prepared four sets of "communities" with different levels of diversity so the students could get a little experience thinking about richness and abundance. I also placed individual invertebrates into numbered petri dishes so the students could practice identification before they got to their more complicated diversity samples.
I started class on Tuesday with a short lecture and slide show, pointing out some of the important traits to look at when identifying each group of invertebrates. Then I pulled out the petri dishes of individuals to let them try their hands at identification. Everything was going so smoothly! They were having some minor challenges, but for the most part they were getting it. Somebody had a little trouble with the crayfish. I thought that was odd since that one is usually pretty easy. Then another. I looked more closely at the petri dish and saw....not a crayfish. The student with the petri dish said, "It looks kinda like a shrimp." And that is when this teacher learned that Missouri is home to, not one, but two species of freshwater shrimp! I had grabbed the shrimp out of the jar and my brain registered: large crustacean = crayfish. Nevermind the lack of claws and the many other non-crayfish traits! I'm not sure if the color drained from my face or if I turned beet red in embarrassment. I tried to take it in stride, I made a clarifying remark to the class, and they were all pleased at the prospect of a free point on their lab assignment.
So, I'm definitely learning to teach, and as with most subjects, the best lessons are hands-on and include at least a few mistakes. But I'm also teaching to learn. So far I've been covering topics where I was confident that I have expert-level knowledge. In the next few weeks, I'll start teaching in areas of less familiarity, areas where I have plenty to learn. I expect that this will allow me to take off the hat of 'expert' and put on my hat of 'facilitator,' allowing the students to explore and maybe teach me a thing or two.
You may have noticed my absence from blogging in December (or, maybe not). I wish I could attribute this to an overwhelming abundance of festivities and merry-making, but that is not the case. Don't get me wrong, there were festivities, but that did not delay my blogging; it takes more than a few parties to keep me away from my adoring reader. (See you on Tuesday, mom!)
The Biology Department at Saint Louis University was displaced about 18 months ago by a fire. Nobody was hurt - unless you count the tears and heartache of years of lost work for some faculty and grad students. Anyway, we've been in temporary dwellings across campus while Macelwane Hall was repaired and renovated....until December. About half of the department, including yours truly, were moved back into the newly renovated space last month, so we spent the first part of December packing our desks and lab spaces. That, and running one last toxicity experiment before the upheaval.
Megan and I finished the last of our packing and prepared to take a last look to make sure everything was properly labeled for the move. Fortunately, we were only responsible for the packing and unpacking (still to come). A couple of companies were hired to actually move the boxes and furniture from place to place.
Our newly renovated biology building is fantastic! Well, it will be when they finish getting the kinks out. My shared office space has no functioning outlets, the air lines and water treatment system for the aquatics lab are not installed yet, and the shelving units in the lab are missing some parts. While we wait for the details to come together, I've been fairly productive in my temporary home office. I have to share the space (see photo), but my table-mate is generally quiet and well-behaved (although at the moment she is playing with a bit of caulk she removed from the bathroom, but that's another story).
But the new building... when it is done, it will be great!! There is a lot of natural lighting on the three upper floors and even in the windowless basement, the fixtures make it feel like daylight. The lab space for our group is bigger than before with separate spaces for our GIS work and wet-lab efforts. The aquatics lab has a huge sink with an industrial sprayer and will be equipped with a high-quality water filtration system. The mud room for our field gear is spacious and has room to both clean and store gear. There is a new space for biological collections, something that was distinctly lacking before. The graduate student offices are near their labs (often with windows into the lab space) and are equipped with printers, refrigerators, and (coming soon) coffee makers. All in all, it is a state-of-the-art building that will serve the department well in the coming years. I can't wait to tell you all about it!
Since my research is on winter use of road salt, much of my field work has been completed in the winter. I've spent days climbing down storm drains to learn about municipal salt use. This year, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I spent the day in the field with Cathleen Yung (an undergraduate student who has been helping me in the lab) and my helpful husband Hogan. We visited Sugar Creek in order to hunt for a large number of a single species of flathead mayfly for a toxicity study that I would be conducting over the following two weeks.
Normally, I wouldn't consider field work before Thanksgiving to be winter field work, but when we arrived at the site, the water temperature was only 3 degrees C and there were small patches of ice along some of the stream banks. We proceeded to spend about 7 hours in the chill water (with waders on), picking up many small rocks (and several not-so-small rocks) with our bare hands in order to look for our mayfly friends. While slow and tedious, this hand collecting method is the most effective for gathering wild specimens without causing injuries to the delicate critters - as long as you can still feel your fingers.
By the end of the day, we had collected over 450 mayflies. As someone who is working to preserve aquatic life, there is a part of me that regrets taking so many animals from the stream. Fortunately, I know that this stream is supporting a very large and healthy population of this species. Within the 120-meter segment of stream where we sampled, we left large patches of habitat undisturbed and did not take the smaller individuals. In addition, there were many other patches of prime habitat both upstream and downstream of the area where we collected. I share these bits of information because I want to make it clear that, as a responsible scientist, I consider the environmental costs and potential long-term effects of any collection efforts that I undertake.
Before I close out this post, I need to express my gratitude to my two amazing helpers. Hogan and Cathleen not only helped get the job done, they were cheerful and enthusiastic about it! I could not have asked for better help in less-than-comfortable conditions!
Last week, we held the annual kickoff to the winter chloride volunteer water quality monitoring program. This event is an opportunity for the volunteers to visit socially, review the program, and see what kind of progress we've made. In the past, we've have presentations from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and from the Metropolitan Sewer District (the entity responsible for stormwater quality in most of St. Louis city and county). This year, for the first time, the kickoff featured guest speakers from the scientific community. Two graduate students from the Hasenmueller Lab at Saint Louis University presented about their own water research.
Teresa Baraza Piazuelo shared her research on the movement of salt through roadside soils. Thus far in her project, she only had results on the sodium ions. She is finding that sodium is more concentrated near the road and that it seems to migrate down into the soil, though some is retained at the surface. She is eager to compare the movement of chloride, which is expected to move more readily than sodium through the soil.
Emily Deeba presented her work on the proportion of stormflow that is comprised of groundwater. She used concentrations of chloride that are found in groundwater and concentrations found in rainwater to perform a groundwater separation and identify what percent of the water in the stream during summer storm events is direct runoff versus older groundwater being pushed out of the porous limestone.
We closed the evening with a conversation about next steps for our program. While becoming more involved in the community of citizen science leaders, I have been reminded that the volunteers in citizen science programs are generally capable of accomplishing far more than just the monitoring aspect of projects like ours. Science is much more than data collection; based on our conversation last night, I can see that this group of scientists is ready to take another step. I hope you'll come back soon to learn more about our progress!
No adult becomes who they are without the influence of others. Generally, our parents are among the most influential shapers our selves. Often, we can also name our mentors; those who have guided us along the way. Many of our mentors are teachers or work supervisors, but mentors can be found in many places within the community.
There have been many times in the past several years that I have lamented not having a mentor, thinking that I should be able to think of that one person who really stands out as having provided ground-breaking guidance that changed the course of my life; I've heard stories of this sort of mentor. But I've come to recognize that it is often impossible to claim a single mentor, that we meet so many people in our lives who shape us - how can there be only one? So I've tried to pinpoint some of the individuals who have shaped me along the paths I've taken. Today, I'd like to share a little about a few of the people who I consider my mentors.
When I was in high school, I met Carol. She was the director at a wildlife-focused non-profit organization where I volunteered. She spent much of every day tracking the animals in her care, ensuring their health and safety, spending time with those who needed a little extra attention, be they wildlife or volunteer. I can't point to any single moment that exemplifies her role as mentor; she was just there, consistently demonstrating her work ethic and compassion. Carol showed me how to be focused, but still flexible enough to reach out to those in need.
I met Bob, John, and Tom while I was in college. Each of them are accomplished researchers in their own disciplines, and I was fortunate to work on projects with them. The time that we spent together was limited by design, but they helped develop the foundations of the researcher I have become. They got me started by asking interesting questions and pushed me to solve many challenging problems. They helped me gain self-confidence and self-reliance.
Marian was my supervisor when I landed my first 'real' job. She led her team by example, with dedication and professionalism. She provided enough guidance and reassurance to help me succeed as a new employee, while allowing me to claim each success as my own, including the eventual publication of my first manuscript. Her understanding of the needs of her staff was remarkable as she worked tirelessly to balance the strong personalities of her team. Marian demonstrated true leadership and trust in her employees, traits that I hope to emulate in my own leadership roles.
Ray has been a dedicated volunteer for many years. While his career in engineering engaged his skills as a tinkerer and builder, his true calling has been as a teacher. He tutors young students, but for many of them he also seems to serve as a surrogate grandparent: a person who will buoy you with well-earned praise, but whose disappointment is palpable when you fail to do your best. He has a lifetime of experience and knowledge, and he shares it readily, but he is also always ready to question. When Ray asks a question, sometimes it is because he knows the answer, but wants you to find it for yourself; as I said, he is a teacher. Sometimes Ray asks a question because he is filled with genuine curiosity and wants to learn more about the world; he is an explorer, too. Ray taught me how to become wise and reminded me that the title volunteer often belongs to individuals who embody both knowledge and passion.
These are a few of my mentors. I have many others - Marilyn, Richard, Bernadette, Omaira, Mary, Chris, Luis, Deanna, Kye-Han, Priscilla, Brian, Sheila, Aydin, Mark... - each providing a part of the person I'm trying to become. I've begun to see my mentors as the patches in the patchwork quilt of my self. The pieces are different sizes, shapes, colors, and textures. Some are a bit plain and seem to fade into the background. Others are bright and bold, drawing the eye. But without all of them together, I am incomplete. I am grateful to my many mentors and I hope that I can be as good a mentor as those who have guided me.
I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on mentoring. Please send a comment!
Last week, I was visiting my field sites to collect invertebrates and download data. While I was enjoying the fall weather, I got to thinking about losing streams. I don't mean that I was concerned about losing a stream; I'm talking about streams that have flowing water for a stretch and then, a short distance downstream, there is no water! In a losing stream, the water is "lost" into the groundwater system.
I have seen evidence that at least two of the streams that I am studying are losing streams: Deer Creek and Hamilton Creek. I've even taken video of this phenomenon at one of the sites:
I am often awestruck by the complexity of nature. The phenomenon of losing streams - which often resurface from a spring a short distance away - is one of these complexities. It isn't that the concept is complex, but rather the implications of the existence of these streams. When the water is lost, that segment of stream changes from an aquatic ecosystem to a terrestrial ecosystem. This removes habitat from one set of species (which may or may not escape the loss of water) and temporarily creates a completely new type of habitat. Also, a path of dry land is created that permits the movement of small terrestrial animals (eg., spiders, ants, and flightless beetles) across what is otherwise an impassable boundary. And then there are the questions of how this may impact the chemical composition of groundwater, especially in streams that carry runoff that is polluted by human activities.
Missouri is home to many losing streams, especially in the Ozarks where much of the bedrock is limestone. Limestone is relatively easily weathered or dissolved, resulting in an abundance of sinkholes and caves. The predominance of this type of rock is one of the reasons that Missouri has claimed the moniker "The Cave State". The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has many interesting resources if you'd like to read more about caves, springs, and losing streams in the state.