By Elizabeth Donald and Zia Nizami
It’s not quite a summer vacation for Guisel Marmolejo, as she is spending her summer days in a lab or searching area streams for water samples.
Marmolejo, 24, is one of 31 college students to be accepted as interns at the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. More than 150 students from 96 schools in 34 states and two countries applied for the internships. They began with a week of training and lectures before they dove into their projects this month.
Among them is Marmolejo, a graduate of Lewis & Clark Community College and current student at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. She is majoring in geography with a minor in geographic information systems, which she said has taught her the importance of spatial patterns, human behavior, cultural backgrounds and understanding the world.
But Marmolejo has another job: she serves in the Army National Guard, joining shortly after graduating from high school in Houston, Texas. As a flight operations specialist, Marmolejo tracks pilots’ flight hours and records and keeps track of the aircraft.
“If they go out on a flight, I make sure we know where they are at all times,” she said. “I track them through GPS and keep in touch with them to make sure everything’s okay.”
Marmolejo was deployed in 2013 to early 2014 in Kuwait and has received a number of commendations, including the Global War on Terrorism Service and Expeditionary medals. After returning, she finished her associate’s degree at Lewis & Clark, where she made the dean’s list.
“I believe having a military background has given me a better understanding of information assurance, adaptability, creative thinking and situational awareness,” she said. She then enrolled at SIUE to study geography and geographic informational systems and is currently taking summer classes as well as interning at the research station.
The internship was quite competitive, according to Natalie Marioni, the center’s director of environmental education and citizen science. “Not only did we receive an impressive 151 student applications, but these were high-quality applicants, making it difficult for our selection committee to narrow it down to only the 31 students needed to fill this year’s available projects,” Marioni said.
All summer, Marmolejo is working with Illinois RiverWatch, a statewide effort to train “citizen scientists” to monitor water quality in wadeable streams. RiverWatch volunteers collect water samples to track the conditions of waterways, and Marmolejo is among those sorting and identifying macroinvertebrates and conducting statistical analysis of the results.
Macroinvertebrates are animals without a backbone that are big enough to be seen with the eye, Marmolejo said. She is responsible for learning the sorting and identification procedures; collecting RiverWatch field-processed samples as they arrive at the field station to be sorted and identified; and completing statistical analysis.
The creatures serve as indicators for the level of pollution in that water, she said; more macroinvertebrates means a healthier stream.
“They have different tolerances to pollution,” Marmolejo said. “If a body of water is very polluted, it will kill off the macroinvertebrates that can’t stand pollution.. If you have macroinvertebrates that are very tolerant, like leeches and certain worms, and you don’t have any others, that tells you that body of water is polluted and not as healthy.”
Not all of Marmolejo’s job is inside the lab. Recrently, she took a group of kids from a summer camp out to a stream called Watkins Creek to teach them how to gather water samples. The kids tested the water for phosphates, nitrogen and pH levels, and were able to find evidence that Watkins Creek is in good shape.
“I think I enjoy a little bit of lab work and being outside,” Marmolejo said. “This is really my first experience in a lab, and I’m getting to see what goes on before the data is presented… Working in the field is fun as well, but with the St. Louis heat, it’s a good fit for me to be in the lab.”
The data can help scientists determine reliable water quality indicators, to track how the conditions of streams are changing over time. The connection between the social and biological sciences is a big part of her research, she said.
GIS jobs are a fast-growing field, Marmolejo said, and she believes the nature of that work will lead to more students seeking to study geography and geographical information systems. And that work suits her, she said.
“I’m not a person who is wanting to be in a certain location or wants to just be near family,” she said. “I like adventure, and I like finding out new things… Having the opportunity to move around and experience new places and things is definitely something I’m interested in.”
There’s still another title Marmolejo carries with pride: mom. She has a 9-month-old daughter named Aurora, which makes an internship along with summer classes challenging.
The key is time management, she said. “If you’re dedicated enough, you can do anything,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who set goals and want to accomplish them, but they don’t manage their time well. You can’t slack off. You have to get over the procrastination and get it done now.”
Of the 31 interns, 11 are financially supported through sponsoring organizations. Marmolejo’s internship is funded by the Monticello College Foundation. Other sponsoring organizations include Principia College, Illinois American Water, Missouri American Water and the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities.
“Through this program, students gain valuable research experience, but they are also exposed to and gain an understanding of the importance of the collaborative nature of institutions like NGRREC at L&C and its various partner organizations,” Marioni said.
Marmolejo and the other interns will present their research findings via oral and poster presentations at a symposium in August.