Science Story July 2023
Imagine that you’ve grown up a city kid in a concrete jungle. But at some point, a science class suddenly whets your appetite for aquatic biology, and the intellectual craving follows you to college. How do you find the path that leads to a career? If you have an educator like Dr. Susan Washko, you’re in luck.
Dr. Washko has a special interest in helping students whose backgrounds or inexperience with water — like the inability to swim — create barriers to studying aquatic ecology. Any field science can be hazardous, but working around water is especially tricky. Some folks don’t know how to gage the depth or speed of water, or they have no experience with boats. This is why Dr. Washko is participating in the River Field Studies Network, a National Science Foundation-funded project that trains college instructors to teach science students how to safely research water.
Dr. Washko herself grew up in the Cleveland area, near the Cuyahoga River. She’s been fascinated with water since childhood. Her high school ecology class worked with stream engineering consultants to restore an artificially straightened stream so it could support more biodiversity. Working on this project inspired her to pursue studies in environmental science and ecology in college.
As an environmental science major at Allegheny College, she met Dr. Scott Wissinger. He was teaching aquatic ecology and needed a research assistant to spend the summer at RMBL, where his three-decades-long research projects lived. So from 2014 to 2016, she spent her summers at RMBL studying caddisflies and learning to be a scientist. It was a pivotal point in her career. Now she’s a new instructor at Western Colorado University creating the same kind of undergraduate research experiences for her students.
She’s been the undergraduate program coordinator at RMBL for the last two summers. This summer, she has mentored an undergraduate in the program, and in the fall she’ll supervise two students working on master’s degrees.
The undergraduate student Dr. Washko mentors is looking at how beaver ponds of different ages may have different invertebrate species. This can help us understand how beaver ponds change over time and how they can be used to restore streams, wetlands, and the invertebrate communities living there.
Dr. Washko first started studying beavers and how they influence invertebrates when she was getting her master’s degree at Utah State University.
Beavers actually have much to teach humans about wilderness restoration. After being hunted nearly to extinction thanks to European colonization, beavers have been slowly repopulating the streams and rivers of the U.S. We need to learn how to coexist with them and how to use their engineering experience to restore streams.
Even ranchers are starting to work with beavers because they increase riparian vegetation and inundation, which benefit domestic animals. These green corridors allow riparian species to thrive and create places of refuge for animals escaping wildfires.
For Dr. Washko, water-based animals infinitely smaller than beavers are just as intriguing. She has spent time at RMBL and other places studying how species like soldier fly larvae, Stratiomyidae, thrive in pools that dry up. It turns out that they simply become dormant and wait for the water to return. Then there are fairy shrimp, whose eggs can lie dormant in dry sediment patiently waiting 100 years or more for water.
Doing research at RMBL under the guidance of Dr. Wissinger gave Dr. Washko the confidence to see herself as a scientist. Now she hopes to instill the same level of confidence in her students. Meanwhile, her thirst for understanding water remains as intense as always. “There are all these little creatures living under the surface, and most people never know they’re there,” she says.
Susan Washko is an instructor at Western Colorado University and the Undergraduate Program Coordinator and Diversity Liaison at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. She earned her PhD in Fisheries Conservation & Management at the University of Arizona, where the subject of her dissertation was combining ecological passions: Aquatic invertebrates in Sonoran Desert rock pools and inclusive undergraduate field experiences.