Voinovich School environmental studies candidate explores her calling to Midwestern waterways

Bethany N. Bella |

Gabrielle Russell has always been drawn to the water.

From swimming off speedboats in the middle of the Ohio River to collecting aquatic macroinvertebrates with high schoolers in knee-high streams, Russell has dedicated her life to understanding water-quality issues in the Midwest-Appalachian region.

"I really enjoy being out on the water and when I learned about the pollution problems in the Ohio River, I thought it was sad that people are then afraid to swim in this water – and that's when I really got interested in water-related issues," Russell said.

Originally from northern Kentucky, Russell applied her passion for aquatic ecosystems in her undergraduate environmental studies bachelor's program at the University of Cincinnati, where she also minored in biology. She then worked eight months in the storm water department at the Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky ,the same co-op she interned with during her summer months at UC.

"We worked in Kenton, Campbell and Boone counties, and it was awesome," Russell said. "I learned all sorts of cool 'field' fieldwork – pretty much everything I know." 

Now she's a master's candidate at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, working on her graduate degree in environmental studies. This time, Russell's thesis work is examining the impact of woody debris on 'intermittent' headwater streams - partially dried up, depending on the season - and the effects on downstream life-forms and stream bank stability.

Woody debris – such as fallen logs and branches – has often been forcefully removed from headwater streams by humans, with the assumption that dead logs were 'in the way' and impeding stream life from thriving. Russell's hypothesis explores the relationship between this debris and macroinvertebrates found in the waters.

But the seasonal variability found in her southeastern Ohio test sites makes Russell's work especially important – and challenging – for understanding the long-term impacts of woody debris on stream life.

"They're tricky," Russell said. "There's a reason why there's not too much literature on intermittent streams, and it's because it's really hard to tell whether or not the streams are truly intermittent.”

She spends most of her fieldwork time out surveying her comparative stream sites, recording the volume of woody debris and collecting various water-quality indicators, such as aquatic macroinvertebrates and salamanders. She even spends a considerable amount of time counting and measuring pebbles, to get an idea of the substrate within the stream.

Yet Russell's making waves in her last year at the Voinovich School, from outreach in schools to public presentations.

In October 2017, Russell assisted with a water monitoring field trip with AP Environmental Studies students from Wellston High School, as part of her MSES research placement with the Appalachian Watershed Research Group (AWRG).

In clusters of kayaks out in Raccoon Creek, the students learned how to conduct flow measurements, measure turbidity, as well as collect water samples. For some students, this was their first kayaking experience.

With funding from American Electric Power Foundation, Ohio University's AWRG reaches out to local high schools with lesson plans, equipment workshops and other expertise in water-quality related issues impacting southeast Ohio.

"It can really be an asset to local high schools to have a research group that's interested in working with them – and it's just fun getting the students outside," Russell said.

In addition to her classroom outreach, Russell represented the Voinovich School at the Water Management Association of Ohio conference in November 2017. At WMAO, she presented a research poster detailing her thesis project.

“I really enjoyed the opportunity to share my work with scientists throughout Ohio. It felt really good to receive all the positive feedback, and suggestions,” Russell said.

Russell will continue to study headwater woody debris as she clears away a path for what's next in her professional career. She's applied to a PhD program in integrated biosciences at the University of Akron – but she may decide to pursue a career in educating young students on water-quality issues in the Midwest.

"I have a very strong sense of place, and I really feel like I want to stick around the Midwest. In my opinion, I think that environmentally like-minded people like to go live in places where there are a lot of people that think like they do. I think it's important to push your comfort zone and not always surround yourself with like-minded people in order to create change,” Russell said.

Russell’s mission is to remain in the Midwest, educating and influencing people's notions on environmental issues.

"I think there's just such an opportunity here."

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