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.
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!