Rowboats, Citizen Science, and the Mississippi River


Photo Credit: Jordan Hanssen, OAR Northwest

An LSU microbiology professor who studies the health of the Mississippi River has an active research project where he collects water samples in collaboration with a group of citizen-scientists in rowboats who travel the entire length of the Mississippi, using his training and sample kits, and stopping at schools along the journey to promote STEM and the river’s importance and history.

Dr. Cameron Thrash, microbiologist and assistant professor in Biological Sciences, recently used a new approach in his aquatic systems research to study the river’s microscopic organisms. This fresh approach involved collecting microbiological samples from the length of the entire Mississippi River to help assess its current health.

“The goals are to determine the types of microorganisms inhabiting the Mississippi River, elucidate their roles in important metabolisms like those associated with the eutrophication, and develop a systems-level understanding of how these microbial communities change along the river and through time,” said Dr. Thrash.

In order to execute, Dr. Thrash collaborated with the Ocean Adventure Rowing (OAR) Northwest team, a not-for-profit adventure education organization based out of Seattle, WA, to collect samples of the rivers water while rowing down the full length of the Mississippi River. In addition, thorough their stops along the way, OAR Northwest cultivated relationships with generous individuals living up and down the Mississippi River who aided in shipping samples to LSU.

Dr. Thrash provided the trained team of rowers -- his “citizen-scientists” -- with a sampling tool kit that included gloves, bottles, syringes, filters, and tubes in Yeti coolers with Hobo temperature monitors, along with a training lesson. The team was trained on simple collection protocols, which required the rowers to sample the water with the bottles, press through filters using the syringes, collect the flow-through, seal the filters, and place on ice in the Yeti cooler. The team conducted these filtrations at nearly 40 sites along a three-month journey from Lake Itasca, MN to the Gulf of Mexico to collect a snapshot of the river’s health, one row at a time.

On November 17, 2016, the OAR Northwest reached Baton Rouge, landing near the Water Campus downtown. During their stop, they met with a local middle school and high school students and teachers to educate them about the river, its importance, and its history.

“It’s been incredible to learn about the Mississippi River not only via its microbiology and chemistry, but through the many interactions between the rowers, US scientists, and the hundreds of students and teachers we’ve encountered on the journey. Citizen-scientist contribution has been essential to making the project feasible both from an infrastructure and budgetary perspective. Moving forward, public involvement will aid in conducting better science but also directly link stakeholders to river health,” Dr. Thrash concluded.