Leading the charge: Marjorie Brooks, leader in the classroom and in the field

By Brandi Courtois, Staff Reporter

The solar-powered fountains coming to SIU’s Campus Lake are just one of the many projects Marjorie Brooks has worked on at SIU.

Brooks, an associate professor in the zoology department, has been at the university since 2009.

Her most recent projects have involved the effect of night time temperatures on tadpoles, beavers’ effects on their local ecosystems and the effects of aerating and cooling water in Campus Lake to help regulate toxins in cyanobacteria that create harmful algal blooms.

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(See More: Green Fund Project to promote recreation at Campus Lake while helping ecosystem thrive)

“My research focuses on the effects of multiple sublethal stressors,” Brooks said.

Sublethal stressors can be things like pollution, warmer temperatures, new competition or new diseases that place stress on living organisms.

“The quick way to think about that is death or injury by a thousand cuts,” Brooks said.

If an animal is stressed by constant exposure to sublethal pollution and warmer temperatures – the stress on them is increased, according to Brooks.

“All those things take energy,” Brooks said. “When you have to exert energy to deal with new diseases, new invasive species, you don’t have as much energy for growth and reproduction.”

Brooks said the sub-lethality of the stressors makes it hard to actually measure the effects. When she measures the impacts of a range of different stressors, she also has to measure their responses in the ecosystem.

“What we’re doing is making it harder and harder for ecosystems to function,” Brooks said.

Brooks does a lot of testing when she’s trying to understand the way aquatic ecosystems work – Campus Lake was no different – but it wasn’t until she waded out into the lake that she really understood the problem.

“By physically getting into campus lake I became acutely aware of all of the wet compost that was in there,” Brooks said.

She had seen the matter from the shore and measured it but the problem became more apparent after she waded out and ended up with ‘a horrible smelly mass’ wrapped around her waist.

“I think people have to spend time out in the natural environment before they really understand how these systems work,” Brooks said.

She asked herself how fish could survive if there was only 20 centimeters of oxygen on the top of the lake for the entire summer.

Brooks said humans have a profound impact on the natural world and sees science and conservation biology as being critical to the health and beauty of the planet, but also for the health of people.

“If we keep losing species at the rate we’re losing them, it’s going to be a pretty stark environment,” Brooks said. “We’re never going back to a pristine planet.”

Calling in the expertise of other people to help with projects like this recent one helps progress move along quicker, Brooks said.

She works with students and faculty from a wide range of disciplines, including engineering, computer programming and campus recreation. This is where inter-disciplinarianism comes into effect.

Craig Anz, associate professor of architectural studies, is one of the faculty members involved in the current projects at Campus Lake.

Anz said the problems we face today – sometimes called wicked problems, ill-defined problems, or complex problems – require people from multiple disciplines to solve.

“We know we’re not going to get a square peg through a square hole approach,” Anz said. “But, when we start putting together the pieces of inter-disciplinarianism, it tends to kinda fit the problem.”

He said by doing these kinds of projects they build a model for other people to do it and that’s an important message to send.

James Mathias, associate professor of engineering, is another faculty member involved in the Campus Lake projects.

“I think [students] see it as a real life application,” Mathias said, “more than a design they don’t feel will have any meaning.”

He said that the students involved are building something that will be tested and tried.

“We don’t know enough about how the things in the lake had been affected,” Mathias said. “That’s not really our area.”

Mathias said Brooks explains that to the students and she brings in an expertise the students in engineering don’t have.

“I’m very proud of Southern Illinois University for creating opportunities for undergraduate research,” Brooks said. “I wish I had had those opportunities!”

Brad Dillard, director of Physical Plant and Services and a collaborator on the Campus Lake project, said Brooks truly cares about the students and goes the extra mile.

“She’s an amazing asset for the university,” Dillard said. “She’s an exemplary example of contributions that faculty make to this university.”

Anz said he challenges Brooks and other professionals to keep doing projects like the ones in Campus Lake.

“To be part of something bigger than yourself and to keep going, that’s what supplies your energy,” Anz said. “The more we do these things the better we become.”

Staff writer Brandi Courtois can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Brandi_Courtois.

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