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.
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.