Science Never Stops

The Academy’s Biogeochemistry Section team, like most of us, have made the switch to working from home because of COVID-19 shut-downs. This comes at a time when scientists are typically getting ready to spend the warmer months out in the field, collecting samples and surveying natural systems such as freshwater streams and coastal wetlands.

How does a team, whose work is largely done in the field and the laboratory, transition to working remotely? We check in with Marie Kurz, the Biogeochemistry Section leader and assistant research professor in Drexel’s Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science Department, to find out how she and her team are coping.

cat and monitor
Marie Kurz’ co-worker keeps getting distracted by birds as they analyze water quality trends relative to land use. “As much as we love data, everyone would rather be outside,” said cat.

Seasonal stream water quality monitoring for the Delaware River Watershed Initiative has been a staple for the section for the last six years. These samples, along with algae, fish and stream habitat data collected by colleagues in the Academy’s Patrick Center for Environmental Research, are used to assess baseline conditions and discern seasonal trends in stream health at over 35 sites across the watershed.

Spring sampling is typically done in April or May. This spring, it will most likely be cancelled.

Disruption in data-collection schedules can negatively affect the research, depending on the project. For the DRWI, “it’s not a catastrophic loss,” said Kurz. “Losing an entire season of monitoring data is always frustrating, but there have been other times when we weren’t able to sample, when streams were ice-covered or flows too high. The value of monitoring is the long-term perspective and comparisons you gain, and this won’t be undone by a missing a single sample.”

All the lab-based chemical analyses the section does of their own and external samples has also stopped. “You can’t bring a plasma torch home with you,” Kurz laughed, referring to one of several analytical instruments where the first step is to ionize samples by heating them to temperatures equal to the surface of the sun.

Her team is staying busy, however, by using this time to catch up on tasks that often get pushed to the back burner because of the demands of field and lab work. Joey Heiczinger has been entering data from field sheets into the database. Melissa Bross has been working on improving the process by which data from the 50 DRWI partner organizations are received and cataloged. 

“A silver lining to all this is the opportunity for the team to work on aspects they don’t normally have time to,” Kurz said. “Exploring new research areas and strengthening our data interpretation and analysis skills will benefit both the staff and the section in the long run.”

marie kurz in stream
Marie Kurz monitoring stream just where she likes to be: outdoors.

In contrast to the backlog of work that can be done remotely for projects like the DRWI, the shutdown has left other projects at a near standstill. Kurz has a grant to study how PFAS (also known as “forever chemicals”) persist in and interact with stream food webs. The field study that was supposed to occur in May or June will likely need to be postponed.

Lab experiments by her collaborators, Chris Sales at Drexel, Erica McKenzie at Temple University, and Dan Spooner at Lock Haven University have also had to be shut down. “We’re waiting to hear from the program managers on what adjustments they will allow,” Kurz said.

The perception that stay-at-home orders are akin to having more “free time” are misleading. “I was hoping I would have the chance to catch up on publications and analysis that I don’t often have time to do, but so far that hasn’t happened,” Kurz said.

As a researcher, professor and manager, Kurz is used to juggling her schedule, but a new situation requires new routines. “We knew it would be challenging to change our day-to-day schedules. My team is used to working pretty autonomously, but there’s been a need for more interaction as we get adjusted and take on new roles. Lots of meetings and check-ins are part of this new normal.” 

Despite all these changes, some things are constant – such as scientific curiosity. As we chatted, Kurz’ gears were spinning in real-time as she pondered the ways in which a large-scale pandemic such as COVID-19 can impact stream and river systems. Disruptions to human lifestyles could change things like inputs to streams from suburban wastewater treatment plants; less shipping traffic on the Schuylkill River could affect sedimentation on the riverbed.

She could not help but wonder about the possibility of exploring new research questions. Even during a global pandemic, science never stops.

By Kathryn Christopher, Manager of Science Communication and Outreach

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One comment

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