Marie Kurz: Ecogeochemist

By Mike Servedio

Marie Kurz didn’t set out to be a geochemist.

“Geology is something that sort of pulls people in,” she says. “I love the way I can go out into the world and look around me and understand what I’m seeing. I got into geology partially to get out of doing chemistry, but somewhere along the line it backfired and I ended up becoming a geochemist.”

Kurz grew up going to museums like the Academy and loved it.

“The idea of being a scientist was probably there from the beginning,” Kurz says. “Both of my parents are scientists, a physicist and an astronomer. I remember my dad trying to explain to me what the astronomical red shift was when I was five.”

Marie Kurz is involved in environmental research at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

photo by Julia Knapp

Kurz is the new section leader for biogeochemistry in the Academy’s Patrick Center for Environmental Research. She describes herself as an “eco-geochemist,” a title she defines as someone who studies water chemistry in the natural world. She adds the prefix “eco” to reflect her interest in studying interactions between ecosystems and chemistry in streams.

The biogeochemistry group that Kurz leads at the Academy is a seven-person team that includes research scientists and lab personnel. The group does most of its work in the lab, but the team also collects samples in the field.

“I like that chemistry gets integrated into a lot of projects, and we work with a lot of departments around the Academy,” Kurz says.

Not only does the team work within the Academy’s fisheries and wetlands groups, but they also do work relating to the Academy’s collections. For example, they are studying isotopic ratios in rainbow lorikeets (a type of parrot found in Australia) from the Ornithology Collection to verify reports that they can be carnivores.

The group’s biggest current project is with the Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI), a multi-year effort of more than 50 environmental nonprofits and numerous public and private partners to monitor, protect, and restore conditions in the streams, rivers, and landscapes in eight targeted regions within the watershed.

Through the initiative, the William Penn Foundation has been a lead funder and provided more than $40 million over three years to the 50 nonprofit organizations, including the Academy, that are working cooperatively to protect high-quality streams and restore portions of damaged watersheds. The watershed provides drinking water to over 15 million people, including the city of Philadelphia.

The chemistry group is collecting and analyzing water chemistry samples from throughout the watershed. Academy scientists use this chemistry data, together with data on stream algae, macroinvertebrates, and other environmental indications, to measure and track improvements in stream health resulting from DRWI activities.

Kurz says she was drawn to the position at the Academy and particularly the work with DRWI because of the immediate interaction with stakeholders.

“We’re doing the science but we’re also direct liaisons with the organizations doing watershed restoration and protection,” she says.

“As a scientist, I find it important and satisfying to work not only on solving basic research questions, but also on translating what I learn into tools and concepts that can aid in effective stewardship of water resources and aquatic ecosystems.”

This article originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of our member magazine, Academy Frontiers.