Testing the Waters

July 07, 2016
Madeline Poethke ‘16 is spending a summer in the stunning landscape of Oregon, training in the kind of science that leads to environmental change.

Poethke, who graduated in May with a B.S. in biology, is working as an estuarine water quality monitoring intern at South Slough Natural Estuarine Research Reserve where she uses some of the same scientific methods she learned in conservation and wetland ecology classes at Washington College out in the field. She said, “As a student reading scientific papers, many papers use these exact methods to obtain their data. … I now know how those instruments work, and have the skill set to actually do it myself.”

Nothing beats taking classroom knowledge out into the real world. “It is one thing to learn about salinity gradients, runoff, and tides in the classroom, but it is completely different to be on the boat taking measurements at both low and high tides, seeing the numbers yourself,” she said.

She spends much of her day-to-day in a boat taking measurements around the reserve as the summer season can get “particularly hectic.” Though checking water quality might seem like a simple task, it requires many steps, all which must be done with precision. “(It) consists of riding in the boat to a number of different sites, retrieving instruments, taking water samples, and ultimately deploying the instruments again after they have been cleaned, the data has been downloaded, and it has been re-calibrated,” she said.

All of this is worth it for the important data it brings the reserve. “As climate change continues to influence our oceans and marine systems, one of the first things we look at is the water,” Poethke said. “South Slough is one of 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves in the country and each one contributes to a larger database. Because of this, we can see trends across the country and compare estuary productivity.”

The work is also valuable career experience. “A background in water quality will give me the experience I need to know how to be a leader in the field of conservation,” she said.

But it’s not all so serious. “The coolest thing I’ve learned so far,” she said, “is how to obtain mud cores and process them. Taking a core is like going back in time. You can see all the layers of accretion that have built up and how the sediment changes from organic to silt. … When we were processing the cores, we could see evidence of tsunamis that have historically hit the Oregon coast.”

And then there’s the wildlife — “I get to drive past sunbathing harbor seals, barking sea lions, and play with crabs in the sand nearly every day!” she said.

Last modified on Jul. 7th, 2016 at 2:19pm by Meghan Livie.