Interview: Studying rivers means wading into more than just water

Geology assistant professor Anne Jefferson talks with Eureka! Lab about what she does, why she does it and why she dyed a stream purple for science

Bethany: Today I am here with Dr. Anne Jefferson, an assistant professor of geology at Kent State University in Ohio, to talk about what she does at her job, and why what she does…Rocks. You see what I did there. Hi Anne!

Dr. Jefferson: Hi.

Bethany: It’s great to have you on, thanks so much for joining us.

Dr. Jefferson: It’s an honor!

Bethany: Could you tell us a little bit about what your job is right now?

Dr. Jefferson: So as you said, I’m an assistant professor. I’m in a geology department. So my job consists of teaching college students about geology, but more specifically about water. Because the type of science that I’m really interested in is the science of water flowing in rivers and water flowing under the ground. I also do research on those topics.

Bethany: So what does that mean you do on a daily basis? What is your job like?

Dr. Jefferson: Technically my job is half teaching and half research. But in reality there’s not a single pattern to my day. It’s more that things are supposed to balance out over the course of a week or a month or a few months. Teaching can be in the classroom, so right now I’m teaching a whole class on rivers. But it can also be working with graduate students and undergraduates on research they are interested in. And my own research can be working with students, or it can be doing things on my own.

Research can be going out into the field, going out to a stream and making measurements, taking samples and bringing them back to the lab, analyzing data on maps and on the computer, and then writing it all up and explaining what’s going on.

Bethany: What is it like to teach college students? What do you have to do when you prepare to teach a whole course on rivers, for example?

Dr. Jefferson: One of the things that’s really different from elementary, middle and high school teaching is that while sometimes there’s a text we can use, there’s very little prepared materials or even be very much guidance about what has to happen in a course. So if I’m teaching a class on rivers, my first job is to figure out what topics I think are important to include in that course. So for instance, I think floods are really exciting. So I’m going to have a whole section in the course on floods and how rivers change in response to floods. Once I have the topics, I have to go find a book that has hopefully most of those topics in it and is written at a level appropriate for the students. And then, I have to write the whole course from scratch. So I have to figure out what order I’m going to put the topics in, how much detail I’m going to put for each one, what assignments I’m going to put with each topic. Am I going to go with readings that are not just in the book, that are on the web or maybe from a journal article? The most fun part about teaching about rivers, for instance, is that I get to take students outside the classroom to local streams and rivers, and get them to actually make measurements and explore processes on their own.

Bethany: So do the students in your classes actually help you with your research a little bit?

Dr. Jefferson: Not very often in the formal classwork, but sometimes they will let me see a feature or a process in a different way. Or they will ask me a question that gets me thinking about what’s going on. Or sometimes they can collect very preliminary data that we can use to guide future research efforts. For example a couple of weeks ago I took my class out to a stream that had been restored, or basically reconstructed over the summer. And we had worked on it for research prior to that reconstruction, and so my class was out there afterward. It was very different, and they made some measurements on the shape of the channel in various places along the reconstructed stream. Well that data will then guide my graduate student who’s working on that stream in terms of how he wants to collect data there, and the sort of measurements he’s going to make and in which places.

Bethany: You said that this measurement is going to help your graduate student. What kind of projects are you currently doing in your research?

Dr. Jefferson: There are three themes I am broadly interested in, and within those three themes I have a couple of projects that are more focused. I’m interested in how water flows in rivers and streams, and under the ground, what we call groundwater. I’m also interested in how rivers and streams shape the landscape, how they erode things and deposit things. How they can transform a landscape over time. The third thing I’m interested in is how humans intentionally or unintentionally are transforming landscapes and rivers and affecting groundwater. And how those three things go into a blender and get mixed up.

Within those broad interests, I’m looking at things and my students are looking at things like stream restoration. So the idea is that we could take rivers or streams that have had some negative impacts because of cities being built around them, and try to improve their water quality. Or try to improve the habitat, the places where plants and animals can live in the stream. Or simply reduce the flooding and the erosion of the stream banks. And we’re trying to figure out how effective practices to do these things really are, and what we can do in the future to be better at restoring streams.

Another example of a project a student is working on is that when we built cities on the landscape, we really reduce the amount of water that can soak into the ground in most places. If you spill a cup of water on the street, it doesn’t go into the ground in the same way as if you spilled it in a forest. More water reaches the streams in city landscapes, and that causes a lot more flooding and a lot more erosion and can bring in a lot more pollution. Now what city planners and water managers and concerned citizens are trying to do is put more water back into the ground, through things like rain gardens and rain barrels and not washing your car on the driveway. There’s a project up in Cleveland, Ohio, where Cleveland Metro Park got a bunch of money to put in rain gardens up and down a bunch of streets. So my students and I are looking at the data collected from the storm sewers below those streets. If it rains on those streets, some of the water goes in the storm sewer network. And then hopefully some goes into the rain gardens. So we are looking at one street where there are no rain gardens and one street where there are rain gardens. We are trying to see how much of an effect those rain gardens are having in terms of how much water is getting into the storm sewers and ultimately down into the stream.

Bethany: So your research could really change how people end up behaving and how people end up using their water?

Dr. Jefferson: That would be the big long term goal. It certainly wouldn’t be from any one science project or one researcher alone. But hopefully we can add a little more information that helps people improve the way we design cities and the way we do stream restoration. Then other scientists can hopefully add a little bit of information. Eventually all of it would get translated into engineering practice and landscape design.

Bethany: Now you told me a little bit about what you’re doing with the research. What happens once you have the answers to those questions, and the results of that research? What’s the process?

Dr. Jefferson: There’s two answers to that. One is that we never really have the answers to the questions. Usually if we have answered one question we’ve created five more. So maybe now if we know how effective putting 20 rain barrels on a single street was, our question might be become, ok can we put enough rain barrels in a whole watershed or the whole drainage area to make a real difference in the stream. It becomes sort of like building something out of Legos, once you put one block on you have space to put more blocks on. That’s one part of it, science never really ends.

The other part is that getting an answer, and just me and my student knowing the answer, doesn’t’ change anything. What we have to do is communicate our science to other scientists. One way to do that is by writing articles and publishing them in scientific journals. Going to conferences and talking about our work. In my field we also have to talk to people like the regulators who determine how we design streets or the way we manage our water. And we have to talk to homeowners and all sorts of people who aren’t just other scientists.

So for example, yesterday I and my students were at a conference called the National Non-Point Source Monitoring Conference. Which is a lot of big words. But basically, people from all over the country, some scientists, some people who work for cities and states, and some people who work for companies, were very interested in figuring out how we can have less pollution getting into streams and groundwater. They were sharing stories about the things that they were trying and how well they were working, or how they weren’t working, lessons learned one way or the other. Talking to people in groups like that is a great way of making science actually translate into action.

Bethany: I have to imagine that all of this doesn’t happen for free. You don’t go out and put in rain barrels for free. Where do you get the money to do your research and how do you get it? How much does your research cost? Where do you get that money and how do you go about getting the money to do your work?

Dr. Jefferson: That is a tough question. Because you’re right, research doesn’t happen for free. So one of the big parts of my job is asking for money to do the science. It turns out I have to ask for money and get a lot of answers no before I get an answer yes. Some of the places that I can get money from to do my science are places like the United States National Science Foundation, or the United States Environmental Protection Agency. But unfortunately, there’s a lot more science that needs to be done than there is money to fund it. So I get no for an answer an awful lot.

You would think in a really applied field like stream restoration and storm water management that there would be more money around. But often times that money is for doing things like buying the rain barrels. Not doing things like figuring out how effective the rain barrels are, the science end of it. So sometimes I have to get creative. For example, this rain gardens project, we’re doing it for free. Cleveland Metropark has the money to do the rain garden intallations. They got it from the EPA, and we’re adding the science on there. In exchange my grad student will get a job with Cleveland Metropark for next summer. So there’s a lot of little bits of money that might be available. But it’s a continual challenge to try and get projects done. Some projects require a lot of equipment in streams and groundwater, and those can be expensive. But even projects where not a lot of equipment is required still requires time from people, and so support for grad and undergrad students to do the research is something I’m always trying to find.

Bethany: It’s good to be realistic. Can you tell me what a typical day is like for you when you’re conducting research when you’re out in the field and analyzing data, what is a day like for you doing that?

Dr. Anne Jefferson, hard at work measuring how streams and groundwater interact. Courtesy of A. Jefferson/Kent State Univ.

Dr. Jefferson: Again, there’s no typical day. There are three types of days. The days I’m entirely in front of the computer, the days I’m mostly in the lab and then there are the days that are in the field. The field days are the most interesting. I can tell you about some of the days that I spent this summer in the stream that was about to be restored.

We were frantically trying to collect data about the stream because we knew that in a matter of days or weeks bulldozers would arrive and, not destroy the stream, but completely recreate it. So we would go out in the morning in hip waders. We would do things like use survey equipment to try and get really good measurements of the stream channel’s shape. Or there was one whole day where we pounded 1.5-inch wide PVC pipe into the bottom of the stream. Those pipes had holes in the bottoms. They are what we call piezometers, and they tell us what’s going on with water moving through the stream and into the stream bed. So we’d pound these pipes into the ground and then we’d wait for them to settle out. We’d pour more water into the pipe and watch how quickly the water went out of the pipe. That tells us how easily water is moving into those streambed sediments.

Bethany: If it’s moving quickly…

Dr. Jefferson: There’s a really good connection between the stream and the groundwater. And if it’s moving slowly, then there’s not. It turns out there’s a lot of biology and chemistry that happen in stream beds. They happen because of the mixing between the surface water and the groundwater. So if it’s really hard to get that mixing to happen, because there’s lots of tiny clay particles and little tiny particles, then you don’t get as much biodiversity in there. You don’t get as much of the biogeochemical processing, which is a fancy way of saying all the nutrients that living things need to live. There’s a lot of fancy chemistry happening in the stream bed. I’m trying to figure out the physical aspects of it that will really be kind of the big controls on the biogeochemistry and the biology that is happening there. So pounding pipes into streambeds, pouring water into those pipes, and making measurements of how quickly things disappear. And then we had a really long fun day where we actually turned the stream purple.

Bethany: Why?

Dr. Jefferson: We had a dye that we injected into the stream. So we basically had a big trashcan full of very purple water. It’s completely biologically harmless. What happens is a lot of it gets moved down in the stream water itself. But some of it moves to the bottom of the stream and in the bed of the stream where all the cool biology and the biogeochemistry is happening. And when it’s moving through the streambed it’s moving much more slowly, and biology is happening down there. This dye, when it is metabolized, when microbes use it, it goes from being a purple dye to being a pink dye. And so we can actually take bottles of water in various places in the stream and at various times when we are adding the purple dye. We can take them back to the laboratory and we can measure how much purple dye is in the water and how much pink dye is in the water. And from that we can take it back to our computer and figure out how much exchange there is between the streambed and the stream water and how much metabolic activity, or how much biology is really going on. So that was a super fun day scientifically. There was lots of energy going in to hauling big tubs of water around, and getting things set up. Once we got the experiments going I had four helpers sitting at various places along the stream, basically reading a book most of the time. But every 20 minutes or so they were grabbing a bottle of water from the stream and saving it for laboratory use later.

Bethany: But the net result is that you really did turn a stream purple for science.

Dr. Jefferson: We really did turn a stream purple for science. And it was in a city park. We tried to get going early in the morning, but it was still pretty purple by evening, and it was a nice summer day. And there were lots of baseball fields. One of the assistants said “These two women were talking to each other and said ‘the stream looks really weird today, I wonder what’s going on!’” Usually if I hear a comment like that, I try to give people a quick explanation of the science we’re doing. The kids were fascinated by the purple stream, so that was really fun.

Bethany: It seems like you have a really awesome job. How did you get to where you are now? How did you get to your current job, where did you start, what made you do your career the way you did?

Dr. Jefferson: I would credit a lot of my start in science to science fairs.  I started doing science fair projects in 5th grade, but I kept on doing them through middle school and high school. In that process I discovered that I really liked rivers. My first science fair project was on dishwashing and the chemistry of dishwashing. That taught me two things. I did not like dishwashing and I was not that in to chemistry.

Bethany: You had to be taught that you didn’t enjoy dishwashing?

Dr. Jefferson: I think it was my mom’s excuse to get me to do the dishes. And then I did a project on snow which was pretty cool. Then I started working on rocks. And rocks were cooler than snow, but they don’t change really fast. And I grew up in the middle of North America where the rocks are really old, they don’t even have exciting fossils in them. But I also grew up in a town on the Mississippi river during some big floods. So one year when I was trying to figure out what to do with rocks for my science fair project, one of these big floods was going on. And we couldn’t get to the rocks we needed to get to on the banks of the river. So I ended up working on the river itself instead. And then I was hooked, because here was something that was changing all the time. It was really important to my community, lots of people would like to go out and fish and boat. But also a lot of our economy was based on the river, and so it was affecting people. The sediment that was moving through the river was changing where the fishing holes were and how easily the boats could go up and down the river. Compared to the rocks that were just sitting there and not really changing for 100s of millions of years, the river was super exciting. So I started doing science fair projects on the Mississippi river.

I got to go to International Science and Engineering Fair for three years in high school. I got to tell people about the science I was doing on the Mississippi. And to get to tell other people, other students and adult scientists, who asked me questions and told me what I was doing was really interesting was a really positive reinforcement. It made the time worth it. Plus I got to go to cities all over the country and all over the world to do this. I got to meet lots of other geeky but wonderful friendly people, kids my age who were also doing projects on science that interested them. So knowing that I wasn’t the only person out there who was interested in science was just a huge motivator. It’s like I found my community through science fairs. I went off to Johns Hopkins, and I knew that I wanted to do something with water. I majored in geology and then I went and got a Masters’ degree in water resources science from the University of Minnestoa. Then I got a Ph.D. in geology from Oregon State University. I spent one year after my Ph.D. doing research in what’s called a postdoc, which is a temporary position. Then I was hired to my first professor job. I’ve been a professor now for about 7 years.

Bethany: So you got into this because of a love of rivers and of science. What do you really love about your job?

Dr. Jefferson: I really like being able to find answers to questions and be the first person to know something. Whether it’s just being the first person to know how easily water moves through that particular piece of the streambed, or to be the first person to connect all the pieces of data and say “look, this is how stream restoration affects the way water moves through the streambed. Maybe we should think about this.” Being the first person to see the data and put the puzzle pieces together is really exciting. As a professor, as someone who has a Ph.D., I get to choose what questions I spend my time collecting data for. So I can go down routes that are interesting to me.

They aren’t even things that I thought 5-10 years ago I would be working on. When I was a grad student I worked on streams that were in beautiful mountain areas. I worked on streams that weren’t really affected by humans in any tangible way. And then I moved to North Carolina and I started looking around this big city that I was living in. I realized that most people don’t experience streams in wilderness areas. Most people see a creek flowing through their housing development. Or maybe they weren’t seeing a creek at all because it had been put in a pipe underground. And so I started working on more urban and human affected systems.

But that was a decision that I got to make. I got to say “Hey, this is an important question, I think I can take some of the skills I have and start to ask some more questions about it.” And my whole research has kind of gone that way. So being the first person to discover something and being able to choose what questions I ask are probably the most fun and exciting parts of the job for me.

Bethany: That means you can pursue questions that are very important to you but also very important to people. So we’ve talked about what you love. What the most frustrating thing about your job?

Dr. Jefferson: There’s two things. The first is that yes, I get to choose my own questions. But I can’t always get the money to do the science that I want to do. So sometimes I will put a lot of myself, a lot of my time, my energy and my heart into a proposal and not get funded. Then I have to regroup and try a different angle. Or sometimes give up on that entirely, at least for a while, and go off and do something else. That’s really hard because you get invested in the questions you want to ask and can’t always do them.

The other part is that science never sleeps, and neither does teaching. So everything is constantly going, and sometimes it feels like there’s just too many balls in the air.  Trying to figure out how to manage my time efficiently, but also say no when I need to have been some of the bigger challenges I’ve been dealing with.

Bethany: But it does sound like it’s pretty well worth it. That you get to do all the science that’s important to you, at least if you get the funding for it.

Dr. Jefferson: I love my job, it’s the perfect job for me.

Bethany: Do you have any advice for people who might be interested in doing what you do for a living?

Dr. Jefferson: First of all make sure it’s what you want to do. The best way to find that out is to get some experience. Whether that’s doing a science fair project or getting an internship when you’re in college or even in high school. Try to figure out whether it’s really what fits you.

In all of the sciences you need to be comfortable with math. And in my field you need to be comfortable with chemistry and physics. So in my field, even though I focus on rivers and I’ve known I want to focus on rivers since I was in 9th grade, I had to take a lot of math, and a lot of chemistry, and a lot of physics, and some biology along the way, to try and build the complementary skills to the skills I was trying to build. So I would say, don’t shy away from things even if they are hard at first. I used to think I didn’t really like math. Then I realized that if I just worked hard enough I would get it. And once I saw how it applied to the things I was interested in, I gained a lot more comfort and confidence with it. Not giving up as you go along. Getting all the sciences together and seeing how they fit together.

Bethany: And it’s true, the more you practice math or chemistry, the more you see how it fits with what you want to do, and the easier it gets because it gets more interesting. The last question I have for you, you have dyed a stream purple for science. Is that the weirdest thing you have done in the name of science?

Dr. Jefferson: Well dying a stream purple was pretty weird. It’s funny because I just think this is what I do for science, this is what I do for my job. So things people might think of as being really weird I don’t think of as weird anymore.

But one thing that continually cracks me up is when I go to the grocery store to get my family’s groceries, I also do stuff like buy 50 aluminum pie tins so I can bring them to my lab so I can take cores of soil and break them up and put them on the pie pans. Or searching and searching for the right size Tupperware container to store a syringe in under the perfect amount of water. My shopping carts are sometimes very random. A jelly roll pan turned out to be just what I needed.

Last year there was a space of about a week where I was ordering stuff for my lab to use as internal lab standards. Samples that we’ll measure over and over again and compare other results to. I measure water, and I needed water from a  really hot place and from a really cold place. So I ended up buying two cases of bottle water. One from a high elevation spot in Colorado, and one from Hawaii. So I had to basically justify spending $40 on fancy bottles of water.

Bethany: That you can’t drink.

Dr. Jefferson: That I’ve never tasted. And once the bottles of water arrived, I couldn’t store them in plastic bottles because they might evaporate and that would throw off what I’ve trying to measure. So I needed really good containers to pour the bottled water into. It turned out the type of containers I needed were beer kegs. So in the space of a week I ordered $40 bottled water and three beer kegs.

Bethany: Thank you so much for participating! I hope you inspire lots of people to look at their rivers in a new way!

Dr. Jefferson: Thanks for having me.

Power Words

biodiversity  The number and variety of organisms found within a geographic region.

biogeochemical How elements cycle between living and nonliving things.

biology  The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

chemistry  A science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and with the changes that they go through. Chemists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances, or to design and create new and useful substances.

erosion The process of surfaces being worn away by water, glaciers, wind or other natural forces.

fossil  Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils.

geology  The study of Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. Planetary geology is the science of studying the same things about other planets.

groundwater  Water located beneath the earth’s surface, in soil or rock.

habitat  The area or natural environment in which an animal or plant normally lives, such as a desert, coral reef or freshwater lake. A habitat can be home to many different organisms.

metabolism  The set of life-sustaining chemical reactions that take place inside cells. These reactions enable organisms to grow, reproduce, move and otherwise respond to their environments.

microbe Short for microorganism. (see microorganism)

microorganism  A living thing that is too small to see with the unaided eye, including bacteria, some fungi and many other organisms such as amoebas. Most consist of a single cell.

nutrients  Chemicals an organism needs to live and grow.

piezometer A device used to measure how the pressure of liquid.

physics  The study of how things move through space and time.

pollutant  A substance that taints something — such as the air, water, our bodies or products. Some pollutants are chemicals, such as pesticides. Others may be radiation, including excess heat or light. Even weeds and other invasive species can be considered a type of biological pollution.

PVC pipe  PVC stands for polyvinylchloride, a type of plastic pipe used in many science experiments.

rain garden  A garden in a hole that is below street level, allowing rainwater runoff to go straight into the garden and into the ground, rather than ending up in a sewer.

sediment  Material (such as stones and sand) deposited by water, wind or glaciers.

watershed  An area of land where all the water running off it goes to the same place, like a stream, pond, or the ocean.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.