Home Laboratory Set-ups

Stefanie Kroll, PhD, is the Watershed Ecology section leader in the Patrick Center for Environmental Research at the Academy of Natural Sciences, an assistant research professor at Drexel’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science, and the science director for the multi-organization collaborative effort known as the Delaware River Watershed Initiative.

Having that many titles comes with myriad responsibilities. To manage her workload during COVID-19 shut-downs, she takes an approach that many of have had no choice but to try to make the best of it.

Kroll is using this mandated work-at-home time to get caught up on scientific writing — an aspect of academia that is highly prioritized, yet easy to put off when other, more time-sensitive responsibilities show up. For Kroll, this writing takes the form of papers to submit to academic journals and writing proposals for new grants, assuming that the funding sources will still be there after the presumed economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

stef kroll
Stef Kroll finds her home-office set-up conducive to writing reports and proposals, especially with office mate Gertie close by for emotional support.

Not all her responsibilities can be tended to remotely, however. As head of the Watershed Ecology section, Kroll supervises the macroinvertebrate lab. Macroinvertebrates are aquatic insects (and a few other taxa) that are useful indicators of the water quality of freshwater streams. Insects are collected from streams and then sorted and identified in the lab.

Spring is the most important time for macroinvertebrate sampling because that’s when the most indicative taxa (the species that are most sensitive to pollution) are present. Sampling too late in the year may mean missing these groups altogether, which could result in an inaccurate stream categorization.

fish in pineapple
While the Academy labs are closed, Tanya Dapkey has taken custody of Rocky the crayfish, the Macroinvertebrate Lab mascot, so-named because he likes to hold his pincers high above his head like a certain cinematic boxer.

Missing a year of macroinvertebrate sampling might be a setback for some projects, but safety is the most important thing. So Kroll isn’t sending her team out until restrictions have been lifted. Luckily, the timing of these shutdowns fits nicely with what’s on the schedule for the Watershed Ecology team.

“This is not a bad time for us to be working remotely,” Kroll said. “There are a lot of reports to do, and we have also been trying to get data out to our collaborators in the DRWI.” Hayley Oakland, research scientist, and Amanda Chan, field work coordinator and research scientist, are working with Kroll on reports, papers and a webinar on ecosystem responses to restoration.

Tanya Dapkey, macroinvertebrate lab manager, has been managing a team of Patrick Center scientists who are working to create informative reports and handouts that interpret the vast amount of water quality data we have on streams in the Delaware River Watershed. Since this relies on using data from our database, it is easy to shift this to being remote work.

danielle at desk
Danielle Odom sorts through slides of midges — a group of very small aquatic insects that require specialized slide preparation, a compound light microscope, and well-honed skills to identify.

Reports and data management are well and good, but it will take more than a pandemic to keep her passionate team members from looking at bugs.

Dapkey, macroinvertebrate taxonomist Danielle Odom and diatom taxonomist Mariena Hurley have taken microscopes and samples home with them to do sorting and identification from their makeshift “home laboratories.”

Odom is skilled in identifying midges (a particularly pesky group to sort and ID), and there are plenty of them to process. Dapkey has been working through samples from a research study on lentic (slow or still water) stream habitats. Hurley is identifying diatoms (single-celled algae) for a few different projects that the Watershed Ecology Section works on throughout the northeastern U.S.

Tanya Dapkey brought home a dissecting microscope to sort and identify aquatic insects, crustaceans and other invertebrates that serve as indicators of water quality in freshwater streams.

It’s important to keep working through samples so that when they can return to their labs, there isn’t a backlog of samples to process, and they can jump right back into working on lab and other work, on roughly the same schedule.

In watching how the world adjusts to the COVID-19 shutdowns and struggles to live in a new “socially distant” world, Kroll sees one common method for coping. More and more people are appreciating the  healing power of nature, even in small, precious doses. She hopes that this renewed appreciation for nature becomes more systematic.

“I’ve been seeing how everyone is trying to get out into nature when they can,” Kroll said. “We, as an environmental, non-profit organization, already had an appreciation for its importance. Hopefully, even if federal funding gets reduced, this will spark people to give more funding to these natural places and to the organizations that work to protect them.”

Though Kroll is already accustomed to using work-from-home time for academic writing, there are certainly parts of the Academy that she is looking forward to returning to.

“I miss the general atmosphere of the Academy, the casual conversations and brainstorming sessions with co-workers around the office. And the sloth from our Survival of the Slowest exhibit! I didn’t get to meet Lulu yet.”

In case you forgot what Lulu looks like

By Kathryn Christopher, Manager of Science Communication and Outreach

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