Thoughts on Science
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.
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!
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!
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.
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: