Thoughts on Science
Since the semester ended, I've spent a much larger portion of my time at the microscope sorting and identifying aquatic invertebrates. Here are a few photos of what I've been seeing in the microscope. With the exception on the scud (Gammarus minus), these are some of the animals I've not seen very often. Enjoy!
As the school semester winds down, lessons for the Aquatic Ecology class I've been teaching have been easier to prepare. For the past three weeks, we've been taking field trips! Field trips are so important to learning; while those experiences may not have included the most informational content, the knowledge gained was always so much more memorable. They also open opportunities for creativity and questioning that seem closed off in most students (and teachers) within the confines of a traditional classroom.
To start, we explored a park along the Meramec River in search of wetlands to delineate. This was part two for wetland ecology, as I had gone through a brief explanation of the concept of wetland delineation and how to identify soil type a few weeks ago. During the field trip, the challenge was actually more about finding areas in the park that were NOT wetlands. The river had just flooded the previous week.
Before the semester started, it hadn't crossed my mind to include a trip to a fish farm for an ecology class. Fortunately, I have Megan to toss ideas my way. She worked at the St. Louis Fish Farm while she was an undergraduate and, when I was trying to figure out what we might want to do during a lake/pond field trip, she mentioned that Mike, the owner of the fish farm, would probably be glad to host us. What a great idea!! Not only did we have a chance to explore a different ecosystem, but there were opportunities to consider the support systems are put in place at a fish farm, what ecological function these systems serve, and why the farm pond does not provide these services without human intervention.
During the visit, several students had an opportunity to try to catch a fish with the nets - each of them took several tries to catch a fish and some never did get one. I wanted to try, but made sure that all of the interested students had a shot first. I was a bit concerned that I would somehow embarrass myself - not only did I manage to catch a fish, but I got it on my first try! I was pleased to represent the Knouft Lab so successfully!
Initially, our field trip to the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center was scheduled for early April. Unfortunately, the flooding on the Mississippi River forced us to postpone the trip. On the other hand, this trip was completely worth the wait! The class split into two groups: one group toured the NGRREC research facility while the other group went out on the Mississippi in the research boat to explore monitoring methods for big rivers. It was very interesting to compare how methods change when you move from a wadeable stream to such a vast aquatic habitat.
In early March, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed - a social media platform I use almost exclusively for science communication (and occasional Blues hockey) - when I saw a Tweet from Matt Schuler about Tyson Research Station. They had reduced their use of road salt this winter by using brine.
I was so glad to read about a local organization taking advantage of brine, that I actually clicked on the article and read all about their brining system. That was when I got REALLY excited. You see, the article mentions "a Brining Workshop organized by [Washington University] and the St. Louis Higher Education Sustainability Consortium." I was one of the two speakers at that workshop! This is the first time that I can say for certain that my research and my outreach efforts have resulted in a change in how road salt is used. They report using only a fifth of the amount of salt that they would have used without their in-house brining system. And, not including the things they already had on-hand, it only cost them $100 to put together the system.
I love success stories like this! If you know of any other groups that have started using brine and are having success at cutting their salt use, please comment so we can spread the word!
Anyone who knows me will probably laugh to read this, but I am actually a very shy person. I'd generally prefer to go home and read rather than go to an event where I will have to interact with strangers. But I push myself to be out there, because interacting with people is the only way to develop relationships. So, when I go to a seminar or conference, one of my goals is always to meet at least one new person each day. Last week, I had the opportunity to meet many new people, as well as reconnect with people I do not see very often, at the 11th National Water Monitoring Conference held in Denver. This three-day conference was attended by nearly 1000 professionals who all work to protect and restore water.
I started meeting new people the day before the conference started. I reached out to Miles Corcoran who works for the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGRREC) in Alton, Illinois, to see if he had any plans for dinner - we had met a couple of months earlier at an event at Saint Louis University and he had mentioned he would be attending the conference. Next thing I knew, I was sitting at a great little restaurant called The Greedy Hamster with Miles and one of his co-workers, Ted Kratschmer. It was great to get to know the two of them and to learn more about the work they do at NGRREC. I visited several years ago, but I need to get back out there soon to learn more about this great facility and their work on the Mississippi River.
The next day, my goal was easy to exceed. The conference program included a topic-based networking session where you select an area of interest and meet with whoever else selected that interest. I had the pleasure of meeting several lovely people in that session, but the one that I really connected with was Jason Palmer. He works for the Iowa DNR writing TMDLs for streams that are not supporting the amount of biological diversity that would be expected. He basically picked up where I left off at the Iowa DNR - the work he does now follows the same general format as the case study I worked on with folks from the DNR and EPA. It was great to meet Jason and hear about how the program has advanced since I left!
On day two, I attended a couple of workshops on some new methods to analyze data using a programming language called "R" that I have been using for most of my statistics and graphics for the past few years. One of the presenters for both workshops was Laura DeCicco, an author on several papers I have read recently. The software packages that she demonstrated are excellent advances to water quality analysis, but have limitations that will prevent me from using them at this time. I approached her to see if she had any suggestions for alternative programs or if there was a plan to add the functions I was looking for and she was so helpful! I have several new resources to explore and great ideas on how to move forward.
That evening, there was a gathering of those who are involved in the volunteer monitoring/citizen science movement. We started off with an informal business meeting and then went out for an intimate dinner for 20 at a local brew-pub. I had a chance to catch up with Karen Westin from MoDNR as well as Tony Thorpe and Dan Obrecht of the Lakes of Missouri Volunteer Program. They are all based in central Missouri, so I don't see them often, but we seem to run into each other every year or two.
On the final day of the conference, I had the opportunity to present my research on brining as a best management practice. I was excited to be scheduled to speak in one of the two largest rooms of the meeting space. Unfortunately, I was scheduled for 4:25 on the last day of a conference. While the 30 or so in attendance could have each had a table to themselves in the vast space, that number would have filled some of the smaller rooms quite nicely. The audience was very attentive and seemed very interested in what I had to share. I fielded a handful of questions and, after the session, I had a great conversation with Kristina Hopkins of the USGS. She has been studying how well the use of green infrastructure (rain gardens, detention basins, etc.) can protect aquatic life in areas under development. As with my work, she is exploring how well these practices work on the landscape scale, so it was nice to share a couple of stories.
After several days of interacting with large numbers of people all day long, I began to wander on my own in downtown Denver to find some dinner. I was glad to find a quiet little Mediterranean place to settle down for a tasty meal. It was a lovely change from the busyness and socializing of the rest of the week - I am rather shy after all.
I have recently been spending quite a bit of time on data sharing. It is something I hadn't really considered much in the past, but as I collect more and more data, it is a concept that comes closer to the forefront for me. Come to think of it, this should have been more in the forefront of my mind, since the data shared from all of the amazing Missouri Stream Team volunteers has been foundational to my entire PhD journey.
Part of the work that I've been doing in the past three years has been funded by an EPA Urban Waters Grant. One of the stipulations of the grant was that the data I collected would be uploaded to their database, called STORET (or WQX). I had used data from STORET in the past when I worked for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, so I was familiar with the site. Unfortunately, my current dataset includes Excel spreadsheets for 50 combinations of site and measurement parameter; nearly all of these files have over 70,000 records! That is a lot of data to upload. After several attempts to upload the data and a series of long phone calls with a tremendously helpful EPA staff member, we came up with a reasonable solution for putting the data into the system. I ended up using their data template to upload about 4% of the data (one data point for every 2 hours instead of one every 5 minutes) and a link to a file that has the full data set.
A later conversation revealed that they are still working to improve the interface; it seems that EPA's data storage technology has not quite kept pace with the advances in data logging. While this may be understandable given both the bureaucratic/political constraints and the breadth of high-priority work being done by EPA, I see this as a major flaw in an agency that needs a lot of data to operate properly. As we are in an era of "big data," it seems that having access to mid and long term, high-frequency data sets would be up near the top of the list. Since one of the priorities of the Urban Waters Federal Partnership is to take advantage of the overlapping interests of the many federal agencies that intersect in this realm (e.g., EPA, USACE, HUD, CDC, FEMA, NOAA, USDA), maybe they can partner with the National Science Foundation to modernize their data handling with an eye to the next anticipated breakthroughs in technology.
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.