Monday, August 9, 2004

Boaters study river science

Expedition involves 4 area college science departments

By Reid Forgrave
Enquirer staff writer

They travel east against the current, from mile marker 981 in Cairo, Ill., to mile marker zero in Pittsburgh, where the mouth of the Ohio River sprouts from the convergence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.

It's a trip that lasts more than two weeks, trekking along one of the Midwest's largest rivers in the hope of understanding more about the science of the Ohio.

Sydnee Smirl, of Huntington West Virginia, Dave Harris, of Sayler Park, and Lisa Smith, of Huntington West Virginia, refresh their research supplies for studying bacteria and water chemistry.
(Enquirer photo/SARAH CONARD)
But don't mistake this adventure of four area colleges to be solely a bundle of biology. These scientists are having a ball.

"If any one of us would try to do the project alone, it would be too cost-prohibitive," said John Hageman, a biology professor at Thomas More College who organizes River Run, a collaborative research expedition in its fourth year. "But when we pool our resources, we can work together better than we even could on our own. Must of the time in academia, people work on their own and want to have control of their own research. But this works so well."

Biology and geology departments from four area schools pool their resources to study the river in what has became an annual tradition.

Each school studies a different aspect of the river.

Hageman and his Thomas More students are studying the abundant zebra mussels, an invader to the Ohio River that can clog pipes in boat motors and make them overheat.

University of Cincinnati professor Mike Miller is evaluating the effects of land use, soil and bedrock on tributary river chemistry along the river.

Northern Kentucky University professors Rebecca Evans and Megan Jaskowiak are studying algae, the base of the aquatic food chain in the river.

And Marshall University biology professor Charles Somerville, one student and one school researcher are trying to determine the presence and concentration of antibiotic-resistant and toxigenic bacteria in the Ohio River and its risks on people in the river valley.

During the 21/2-week trip, the boaters have slept on inflatable mattresses and sleeping bags, and they have alternated driving the "land chase vehicle," following along the river route and meeting the boat nightly at dock points. That way, the scientists can accomplish the practical things - laundry, grocery shopping, minor repairs - that cannot be taken care of on the water.

The schools joined this year to troll the length of the Ohio River and, for the first time, got an Ohio River rat to lead them on their way in style - on the Chattanooga Star, a boat that seems more fit for Tall Stacks than for science experiments.

"It was natural for us to tie in with these colleges, since we're both dedicated to teaching people about the river and about what's in the river," said Capt. Mike Hosemann, who built the Chattanooga Star with his brother and father more than 20 years ago.

The professors and students ride the boat for free. Since his boat doesn't have a license that allows him to charge for overnight passengers, Hosemann hired them on as crew members. They all received marine training in things such as maneuvering the boat and tying off in docks.

Hosemann's scientific crew - about a dozen in all - say it's amazing to learn Ohio River history and lore from someone who virtually lives on the river.

Hosemann seems to know a captain or a crew member from every vessel they pass.

The professors, students and the boat captain will be living out of the 64-foot side paddle-wheeler until they finish their trip Aug. 17 in Pittsburgh.

"I wish I had something like this when I was in school," Hageman said.

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