The “River of Long Reach”

The 440-mile-long Susquehanna, which five years ago the conservation group American Rivers called the nation’s most endangered river, is quite unique. For a river so wide—between 3,000 feet to nearly a mile wide after its two branches meet—it is very shallow. Most days near Selinsgrove you can wade completely across it without getting your head wet.

Its two branches also have distinct chemical signatures. Reflecting the legacy of acid-mine drainage, the West Branch is more acidic. The North Branch carries more sediment and nutrients—a result of agricultural runoff—which, in turn, nurtures oxygen-stifling algae.

Interestingly, after the two branches meet at Sunbury, their waters flow like two distinct rivers side-by-side, without really mingling together, for about 40 miles. At that point, the Juniata River pours in from the west bank, and the three rivers flow side-by-side for another 10 miles until the rocks studding the river near Harrisburg finally churn the waters together.

“For both the river and the bay, the cooler, high-quality water where we often find trout also acts like a buffer for the waters downstream in terms of minimizing pollutants and keeping the water temperatures cooler to help control algae growth,” says Niles, a Westminster, Md., native who studied biology on the Chesapeake Bay’s western shore at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Bilger also has deep ties to the river and bay. Ten generations of Bilger’s family have lived in Snyder County. Although he was raised in Lancaster County, the current Middleburg resident summered at his family’s cottage along Penns Creek. “After my grandfather built me a boat when I was around 10, I was on the creek or river every day,” he recalls.

“River systems like the Susquehanna are really complex, and they’re a challenge to study,” Bilger adds, “but with this awesome lab, Susquehanna is positioned tremendously for aquatics studies. And, after 41 years in the field, having students with me really recharges me.”

Indeed, both Bilger and Niles maintain that the opportunities for Susquehanna’s undergraduates give them significant advantages when pursuing either graduate degrees or environmental jobs. That’s because students

  • Become familiar with state-of-the-art scientific equipment,
  • Engage in the kind of field and laboratory research usually reserved for graduate students,
  • Present their findings with faculty mentors at scientific conferences, and
  • Even co-author peer-reviewed scientific articles with their professors.

For the past two years Erin McKeown—a senior biology major from Tannersville, Pa.—has electro-shocked fish, collected aquatic insects, and worked with conservation districts and watershed organizations. She also assisted Penn State graduate students on smallmouth bass research and, in conjunction with the King’s College National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sea Grants Program, has dissected more than 2,000 invasive rusty crayfish to analyze what they are eating.

McKeown, who intends to become a biology professor, says, “This is the first time I’ve been able to actually participate in hands-on field and lab research, and it’s really reinforced and increased my passion for biology.”

Dan Isenberg, a senior biology and ecology major from Danville, Pa., planned on becoming an ophthalmologist until Niles recruited him to assess streams the summer following his freshman year. Now he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in invasive species ecology.

“I really like doing aquatics field work,” says Isenberg, president of Susquehanna’s chapter of Sigma Gamma Epsilon national honor society for earth sciences. “If you just looked at a stream or pond, you’d have no idea that all these cool things like fish and crayfish are there.

“It’s also a pretty unique feeling knowing that what I am doing during this summer research is very representative of what I could actually be doing as a career.”

Sam Silknetter ’14 began working with Niles on the Unassessed Waters Initiative in summer 2011. Among the waterways they fortuitously surveyed were the Loyalsock Creek and its tributaries, which shortly afterward suffered record flooding caused by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.

With baseline data in hand, their follow-up assessments were able to show that the unprecedented event caused aquatic insect populations to decline up to 90 percent. Yet, over the course of the next two years, they documented that overall insect population numbers had rebounded to their previous numbers, only with different species compositions.

Silknetter was fascinated. “Before I went to college I wondered how researchers could dedicate their entire lives to studying just one insect or one facet of ecology,” he says. “But doing this research opened my eyes to how complex everything is.”

Currently Silknetter works for an environmental consulting firm in Reading, Pa.—a job he says he would not have gotten without his research experience at Susquehanna. Ultimately, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. so he can conduct research and teach at a university.

“Dr. Niles is not just a researcher, but a teacher,” Silknetter says. “He was such a huge influence because, from him, I learned not just the research, but I also learned how to share what I’ve learned with others.”

Bruce E. Beans is a contributing writer from Warrington, Pa.

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