Thoughts on Science
The lab I work in has been a very busy place for the past few weeks, especially for my lab-mate, Megan Pagliaro. She is studying how fish from streams and lakes respond to long-term increases in water temperatures. The expectation or hypothesis is that fish living in places where summer water temperature is warmer will be able to survive higher peak temperatures better than fish from places where where summer temperatures are more moderate. This is kind of like saying that someone from Oregon will be better suited to a Texas summer than someone from Alaska. Megan is using the existence of the urban heat island effect in St. Louis as the source of the temperature difference.
Over the summer, Megan captured fish from sites in about 16 lakes and 14 streams. Each of these sites has also been home to a temperature logger that has recorded hourly temperatures. The expectation is that the lakes and streams that are closer to the city will generally be warmer than those that are farther from the city; factors like lake size and the presence of springs in some streams may influence the water temperature and mute the urban heat island effect. The data from the temperature loggers will help Megan place the sites on the heat island temperature gradient and relate the fish responses to the actual conditions in their home waters.
So how does one go about testing the temperature tolerance of the fish? With a test of the Critical Thermal Maximum (or CTMax). I can share the basics of how Megan did it. First, she acclimated all of the fish to the same moderate temperature. Then she put some of them (11 or 12 at a time) in individual small containers in an aquarium so that all of the fish in the aquarium would experience the same rate of temperature change. Water was pumped through a heater and back into the aquarium to gradually increase the temperature. She would then watch the fish until they experienced a loss of equilibrium (this means that they couldn't stay right-side-up anymore). The temperature when each fish lost equilibrium is the CTMax for that fish. Megan then repeated the test on additional groups of fish. Each test took 2-3 hours, so this process went on for a couple of days.
Megan just collected the last of the dataloggers from the lakes last week and some of the ones in streams are still in the field. I hope to share her results in the future, so be sure to check back in the coming months!
There is a small but active group of scientific researchers in the St. Louis area who lead an organization called St. Louis Ecology, Evolution and Conservation (SLEEC). This group includes individuals from most of the area universities as well as many from local institutions like Missouri Botanical Garden, the St. Louis Zoo, and National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. The organization hosts several journal clubs on specialty themes - like a book club for the discussion of scientific research publications.
The other major contribution of SLEEC to the community is the annual fall retreat. On September 22nd, Maryville University hosted about 150 scientists to hear 15 presentations and view about 40 posters (including one below from yours truly). It is always refreshing to get out of your own work to hear what types of questions others are striving to answer. This year, there were interesting talks from two speakers about the movement of Galapagos tortoises and salamanders (or "long frogs" as the speaker called them). Two other presentations from different universities explored different aspects of malaria in birds. There were also plenty of plant-focused talks, including one about the purpose of paired spikelets is most grasses; one can produce a seed while the second will not, but instead provides energy for the growth of the seed.
This retreat provides wonderful opportunities for students, faculty, and institutional researchers to learn from each other in both formal (talks and posters) and informal (meals and post-event picnic) settings. I have enjoyed these opportunities to reconnect with former colleagues at MGB and make new connections in the ecological realm.
A few weeks ago, Dr. Jason Knouft, the PI of the lab where I work, was busily setting up a microscope and a variety of sterilized tools. Most of the readers of this post will not appreciate how unusual this is. While I'm spending much of my time these days at a microscope to identify the many aquatic invertebrates I've collected, Jason's research efforts are generally spent either collecting fish in rivers or analyzing data using GIS (for my non-tech/science readers, we'll say fancy mapping).
While many wise graduate students would run and hide when such unusual activities begin in the lab, I elected to observe quietly to see where the day would lead. Soon the lab bench held not only the microscope and tools, but also a container of live fish and a cooler with liquid nitrogen. At this point, I knew I would be witnessing an interesting event. Jason was going to be collecting fish tissue for some baseline genomic work.
Soon, Dr. Warren from Washington University arrived and the tissue collection began. I grabbed my phone and started taking pictures to document the process. The fish were anesthetized before being sacrificed to expand our knowledge of fish genetics. Next, brain tissue was removed, packaged, and frozen to preserve the DNA. Since these little fish have small brains, extra muscle tissue was collected and frozen, just in case. All in all, the dissection and tissue collection from 3 fish only took about 20 minutes. The work to read the DNA of these fish will take quite a bit longer.
People often think of cities and suburban areas as zones with little or no wildlife. While it is true that the wildlife in our urban areas is not the same as what existed before we added our buildings and parking lots to the landscape, there is more non-human diversity than many realize. I am reminded of this each time I see a raptor in my neighborhood, hear the peeping of young tufted titmice in the nest box in my back yard, or watch the many insects that make a home in and around the rain garden in my front yard.
While my personal anecdotes of urban diversity are valuable to me on a personal level, they don't do much to advance scientific thought on the subject. For that, today I will defer to the research being done in the Camilo Lab at Saint Louis University. Dr. Camilo and his students look at native bee diversity in urban areas, specifically in community gardens. While you might expect to find more species of bees in rural areas, they are finding a greater diversity of species in urban areas. In addition, the number of species is higher in economically depressed urban areas. I'll let Dr. Camilo speak for himself; hear more about his work in this You Tube video.
The Ecological Society of America held their annual conference on August 5-10, 2018, in New Orleans. This was my first time attending and I have to say that I was overwhelmed! There were over a thousand scientists in attendance. and the wonderful individuals I met were as diverse as the ecological subject areas that were being studied.
I went to the meeting with Megan, a fellow grad student working in Jason Knouft's lab. I was pleased to be able to present a poster of my recent work and had some great feedback from one of the editors of one of the British ecology journals. I was also glad to see Kara, a former member of the lab. We enjoyed an evening on Bourbon Street, a must for any trip to New Orleans.
While I heard a lot about some very interesting science programs and areas of study, one of the sessions that I found most inspiring was one on the importance of communicating our science. Based on my insights from that session, I am re-kindling my blog and I have every intention of posting regularly so that my massive throngs of readers (Hi, Mom!) can hopefully glean something from my own thoughts on science...
Thanks for reading!
I've spent the last several days at the 2017 River Rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan. River Rally is a national gathering of professionals who support and protect rivers and watersheds across the nation. My participation was made possible by the Urban Waters grant that is funding my stormwater studies. As a grantee, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be part of the Urban Waters Learning Forum and the rest of the River Rally.
Rather than trying to summarize the whole experience of the River Rally, I will instead offer the most important lessons I learned: