What's the Big Idea?—Multiple Perspectives to Answer Complex Questions

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JoAnn Holloway, biogeochemist with the USGS Mineral Resources Program, explains how interdisciplinary science can help better inform the conditions of a complex ecosystem.


Date Taken:

Length: 00:03:30

Location Taken: Denver, CO, US


I'm JoAnn Holloway; I work with the US Geological Survey. I'm a biogeochemist. I work with the Mineral Resources Program. I think the most innovative thing we can do in science is work interdisciplinary projects or put interdisciplinary projects together. In my case, the interdisciplinary nature of my project in Idaho: looking at the East Fork, South Fork of the Salmon River, which is a salmon stream that has been used the Nez Perce Tribe, and is a recreational fishing area for a lot of people, and it also has a lot of mines on top of it. How do you constrain what the impact of historical mining is on this river? The only way to really do that is to address the biological, geochemical, and hydrological issues. So the innovation I have is to work with a fishery scientist, an entomologist, an isotope geochemist, and myself as more of a watershed person, to put together different parts of this ecosystem and that way we can actually address: "What is the impact of the mining on the fishery?" When I'm working with watersheds, I'm looking at what is going downstream. Any watershed has had a legacy of land use going back to the first people that used that watershed, probably migrants...probably people that were making their way through North America. The most recent society that used the Salmon River is the Nez Perce Society, and the Nez Perce Tribe still uses that as a major fishery, a source of salmon. That is part of their treaty agreement with the United States Government, and, in order to understand why the fish are thriving or not thriving, we need to understand how that watershed functions, and part of the functions is how does that watershed respond to any land use that has occurred on that watershed - not necessarily at this moment, but going back to, say when the first mercury mine was put in, in 1912. I like to play outside, and one of the things to understand what's going on in a landscape, is that you have to set eyes on it. You can look at historical records. You can look at other data sets, but fundamentally you need to set feet on the ground. So my tendency is to do site visits regardless of the project that I do. As a biogeochemist, I collect soil samples. I collect water samples. I work with microbiologists. I work with people who look at the fish or the invertebrates, but what we all need to be able to do is see what that stream looks like, see what landscape looks like, because, in the end, we are the best observers and the best witnesses in what processes are happening. So fieldwork is imperative. I feel that we live in a world that changes rapidly and the rapid changes mean that we are going to have a different lifestyle as time goes by and what I try to do is not so much change the entire world, change how we're doing everything, but what I'm trying to do is make a point about how we can improve one little corner of the world, one study at a time, and I think that is worth the effort.