In the Monongahela National Forest, a tributary wends its way through the mountains. For at least a century, Shavers Fork and the brook trout that live there have struggled against development, acid rain, and deforestation.
The brook trout aren’t at the point of extinction, but the system where they live is broken. Drainpipes under railways and roads hamper the fishes’ path.
West Virginia University stream ecologist Todd Petty has been studying the area with colleagues for more than a decade. He’s finding out what’s going wrong with the entire system and what can be done to preserve it—as well as the economic viability of the brook trout to fishermen.
And in keeping with the scientists’ recommendations, there have been some improvements. Channels are being restored, and government projects are moving culverts that could negatively affect the brook trout’s movements. In fact, approximately $2 million has been spent on efforts to revive this place.
Petty’s other work is developing with a colleague a software system that will help entities make knowledgeable permitting decisions, which could help alleviate ecological damage before it happens.
In a way, he says, what he does for earth systems is like what doctors do for human patients: diagnose and treat. In fact, because of his interest in biology, he was pre-med. But that wasn’t where his interests took him.
Petty grew up in Virginia where he learned to love rivers and streams. In his undergraduate research he discovered ecology and as a graduate student he chose aquatic ecology. This time in his life would lead him to where he is now, applying research to solving a problem and getting hooked on the joy of discovery.
“Still the reason I enjoy science is just the discovery of it, just the chance of discovering something that may be useful,” he said.
PASSING IT FORWARD
Now he gets to help the process of students discovering what they love over and over again.
It’s a part of a professor’s job to nurture and mentor graduate students, growing the next wave of researchers. But not every faculty member runs multiple programs that give the graduate students a chance to be in the driver’s seat before they’re officially in the driver’s seat.
A couple of years ago, Petty instituted the WVU chapter of a national program, EnvironMentors, that pairs graduate students with area high school students to act as mentors and advise the younger students through their very early stages of scientific practices.
Petty says the University is one of 14 across the nation to have this program, which is intent on recruiting underrepresented populations into scientific fields. Women, minorities, and first-generation college students are much less likely to choose science as a career, and this program can help interest those high school students early on.
In the end, if the mentors do nothing else, they’ve helped a younger student along. They’re also probably the best people to do this for high school students, he said, since they’re young enough to be a peer yet they’re experienced enough to have something substantial to impart.
Petty says the program is of enormous value to the graduate students as they examine and confront areas they can grow in and learn what the young people they mentor expect of them.
“They reach this awareness that at any given point they can be a leader any time that someone has an expectation of them to take the lead,” Petty said. “Those opportunities are always out there, and over time we learn to recognize them.
“When you’ve got to teach science overnight to somebody who has no idea, you necessarily get better at being a scientist yourself. You have to.”
This past year, 19 men and women in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design advised 19 Morgantown High School students on topics including water quality near surface mines, green laundry detergents’ effects on plant growth, how people are influenced to use the area’s rails to trails system, and what effect artificial light has on insects and bats.
“The reason I enjoy science is just the discovery of it, just the chance of discovering something that may be useful”
As associate director for WVU’s Environmental Research Center, Petty has developed academic initiatives such as the Peace Corps Master’s International Program, which coordinates students’ graduate education with their Peace Corps assignment. In the Peace Corps program, sustainable forestry and natural resources management students work toward their degrees while coordinating with the Peace Corps so that their assignment begins after their theses are complete.
Petty says he was able to do this work that enhances the quality of the graduate educational experience because of the flexibility he has as a faculty member at WVU. He says he’s not pigeonholed into one task.
That’s how he’s able to make his own graduate students’ experiences more rich, so they in turn can become accomplished scientists and work on their own versions of restoring Shavers Fork.