Stefanie Kroll: Tales of a Watershed Scientist

Stefanie Kroll calls fieldwork her “Cinderella Clause.” Like the fabled princess, the Academy scientist spends most of her time indoors and behind the scenes, striving to make sure that the work that takes place outdoors runs smoothly.

Yet when Kroll steals a moment to step into the field, she’s no ordinary Cinderella figure. She trades glass slippers for chest waders, for when she hops into a stream and the dirt settles underneath her fingernails, she’s living her own version of a fairy tale.

Female scientists stand knee deep in water in a stream by a bridge
Photo by Kathryn Christopher/ANS

Ever since Kroll was a youngster, she has enjoyed spending her days outside picking up salamanders and bugs. In college, she assisted a PhD student with fish sampling in the Salmon River in New York, and that’s when she first became fascinated with the complexity of aquatic ecosystems. She loved interacting with the fish, and she was stunned by the beauty and adaptations of aquatic insects.

At heart an explorer, Kroll veered away from science for eight years while working as an interpreter and an English teacher in Spain. During her time there, she completed a master’s in stream ecosystem research. Her field sites, located in the sparsely populated Castilla-La Mancha, became the subject of her PhD research: assessing human impacts on stream ecosystems as measured by aquatic insect communities. The work also sparked her interest in climate’s influence on aquatic ecosystems.

“After living in Spain’s arid climate, I have a greater appreciation for how much water we have available to us [here in the United States],” Kroll says. “By understanding how much human actions are affecting our ecosystems and how to perform everyday activities in a less harmful way, we can reduce the impact and be better stewards of the earth.”

Female scientist in green coat holds large orange goldfish
Photo by Stephanie Johnson

And that’s increasingly urgent, she says. Recent studies on the Colorado River and the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer in New Jersey indicate that contaminants are prevalent in the groundwater. The results signal that the amount of water available and the quality of the local water supply are at risk.

“Freshwater is a finite resource, and the more we take care of it now, the better condition it will be in in the future,” she says.

She’s referring specifically to the water in the Delaware River Basin, an area over which she, along with a slew of Academy scientists, has been granted oversight. In addition to its undisturbed regions, the basin contains areas where drainage from abandoned mines is polluting streams, as well as stretches where storm water runoff from large cities and agricultural fields is introducing contaminants into the water.

“The Delaware River Watershed is a great area for analysis because it contains waterways with many of the conditions we find throughout the country, with different stressors on the water, and it’s a good incubator for projects aimed at preserving water and habitat quality,” she says.

Four researchers from the Academy of Natural Sciences near the edge of a river on a gray day, reeds in front of them.
Photo by Frank Kroll

Kroll began working at the Academy after scientists from the Academy’s Patrick Center had begun work on the Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI), funded by the William Penn Foundation, to protect and restore the Delaware River Basin’s water quality and overall ecological health. She has been accumulating titles since she arrived: head of the Watershed Ecology Section in the Patrick Center, assistant research professor in the BEES department, and project science director for the DRWI.

Kroll has been working with a variety of partners to design and update a DRWI-wide comprehensive monitoring plan that provides information on project conditions and contributes to research around the initiative. She provides outreach to cluster group organizations to interconnect their monitoring with ANS’ so all groups can collaborate on the larger goal of restoring degraded areas, protecting undamaged areas and monitoring watershed health. She also is working closely with groups to translate data into action, helping them use their data in outreach to policy makers and landowners.

Kroll is a nexus for researchers studying water quality issues in the region. She works with senior Academy scientists to identify field sites for testing, coordinates the on-the-ground science and monitoring, conducts data analysis to evaluate the effectiveness of the grantees’ land conservation efforts and restoration projects, publishes reports and papers on the findings, and connects with water researchers, conservation practitioners, environmental regulators and watershed associations throughout the Basin and beyond. She also shares her work through teaching in the BEES department and employs Drexel co-ops and interns from the Academy’s WINS program and Philadelphia’s WorkReady program to spread her enthusiasm for rivers to the next generations of environmental scientists.

Kroll is thrilled to be performing research that has a practical outlet, and she says it’s a privilege to take a leading role in a comprehensive monitoring program with potentially huge implications. Yet there’s still a part of her that revels in the basic sampling—the dirty work—that is so necessary to forming reliable results. For Kroll, being in nature is the epitome of a happily ever after.

Female scientists like Kroll are making an impact on our world every day. On September 22, 2018, we will honor women making science history during Smithsonian Museum Day. Talk with female scientists from our wetlands, environmental science, malacology and invertebrate paleo departments, meet students from our Women In Natural Sciences program and see specimens collected by female scientists. Get free general admission to the Academy as part of Smithsonian Museum Day. To receive the free admission offer, download the ticket to receive free admission for two people. Add on Xtreme Bugs or Butterflies! with an optional Super Saver ticket for $10!

Learn more about the Delaware River Watershed Initiative.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2014 issue of the Academy’s member magazine, Academy Frontiers.

Post by Mary Alice Hartsock

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