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Monday, September 25, 2023

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Olivia Griffin, 2021 graduate in evironmental science

Mentorship in Action: River Research Makes Textbooks Come Alive

Geographer Trent Biggs works with students to investigate water quality in the San Diego River and develop a real-time testing system.
By Kellie Woodhouse and Chris Leap

Olivia Griffin first learned about stream morphology in textbooks and classroom lectures, but it wasn’t until she began helping San Diego State University researchers examine the health of the San Diego River that she truly understood the concept.

“I am very hands-on and visual,” explained Griffin, an SDSU geography student who graduated in May. “Actually being able to see it and work with it made me realize ‘Oh, this is what the textbooks are saying.’”

Griffin is one of several students who worked with geographer Trent Biggs over the spring and summer to investigate the water quality of the San Diego River and develop a real-time water quality testing system.

The project has found high levels of bacteria in the river during storm flows, especially after peak flood flows, suggesting that river contamination may come primarily from leaky sewage pipes and not from surface runoff sources (such as homeless encampments or dog parks).

High-impact experience

Fieldwork is a valuable experience for budding scientists. It provides tangible experience with often complicated classroom concepts, helping students explore their interests and define their career path.

Hands-on experience is also valued by employers and graduate schools. When Biggs talks to industry and government agencies about what they’re looking for in college graduates, they often place fieldwork experience at the top of their list.

In a classroom setting, Biggs said, the right answer is often easily available — students can simply look at the back of the textbook for the answer to a question. In fieldwork, however, they have to investigate, analyze data and develop real-time solutions to roadblocks.

“One of the most critical things we can introduce students to is fieldwork,” Biggs said. “How do you collect data in the field? How do you make sense of it? How do you understand whether the data is good or whether you need to take the measurements again?”

“It's really that fieldwork experience and being able to understand what that data is telling you that's a really critical part of the education experience and is a very sought after skill in the job market,” he continues. “That's where we learn new things. That's where new knowledge is created that can be actionable and influence new policy and management.”

For Griffin, her fieldwork experience was integral in gaining an internship with the National Parks Service this summer, where she is collecting and analyzing samples from natural water sources.