Field of Streams

McGrath sisters Emily ’07, Lauren ’12 and Olivia ’15 use research skills learned at Ursinus to help sustain the world’s waterways.

Rivers and streams ebb and flow, oceans roar, and throughout the world, it’s becoming even more essential to protect our waterways, a crucial component of life that is vitally important to global ecosystems.

Fortunately, a trio of Ursinus College alumnae are working tirelessly to do their part.

Emily McGrath ’07, Lauren McGrath ’12 and Olivia McGrath ’15 are passionate environmental scientists who honed their research skills in Collegeville before beginning careers that span the globe. The sisters — who each credit their affection for the outdoors to their upbringing on a farm in Benton, Pa. — may be engaged in different fields of study, but they are focused on the same goal: sustaining a thriving and diverse ecosystem for years to come.

“It’s funny — Emily is marine, Olivia works mostly in estuaries, and I’m in the freshwater system, so we span the gamut from the headwaters down into the ocean in our interests,” Lauren McGrath says. “That’s pretty neat.”

They’ve also got the whole world covered.

Lauren recently earned her master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Pennsylvania and completed her master’s thesis while volunteering at the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pa. She is currently a research lab manager at Penn. Olivia lives in Seattle and is working for a nonprofit organization that monitors how beavers influence Washington’s streams. Emily is pursuing her doctoral degree at Victoria University of Wellington — New Zealand’s largest research university. She studies giant barrel sponges and their impact on coral reef ecology.

“We were always driven in the same direction when we were younger,” Emily McGrath says. “We’re really close and we bounce ideas off of each other a lot. I’m thrilled at their success and their drive. It’s so cool to see them become so successful.”

The Great Outdoors

From a young age, the McGrath sisters were always outdoors.

“I think that influenced how we all became scientists,” Olivia McGrath says. “It definitely started with Emily, who as the oldest, brought back all of her knowledge and taught us before we were in college. That sparked our interest.”

Even before that, the sisters remember creating their own adventure on the family’s property, playing by the creek or in the woods, and identifying bugs and plants in Lauren’s Audubon Society book.

“That hasn’t changed at all,” Lauren McGrath says. “I think it just made sense for us to pursue environmental science.”

The Land Down Under

It’s a cold Tuesday afternoon in December in Collegeville when Emily McGrath begins a Skype session with Ursinus. But it’s a summer Wednesday morning in New Zealand and Emily recently finished a diving trip in the northern part of the country. Her research often takes her to Indonesia and the heart of the world’s coral triangle.

“In the three years that I’ve been here, I can see the decline [of coral reefs] and the reefs are changing quite quickly,” Emily says. “A lot of work is focused on what happens when corals decline, and something will take their place. In many areas, sponges are filling that niche.”

The barrel sponges Emily is studying can filter enough water every day to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. “It changes the water quality and an increase or decrease in those sponges really have an impact on the rest of the ecosystem. I’m trying to find out how they affect the rest of the reef,” she says.

After earning her Ph.D., Emily hopes to do post-doctoral work in coral reef ecology or conservation. Eventually, she says, she hopes to “be involved in the government side of things where actual change can be implemented.”

Freshwater Systems of the Northeast

Lauren McGrath’s first exposure to macroinvertebrates — animals without a backbone that are visible to the naked eye — came at Ursinus during a class taught by Kate Goddard, an associate professor of biology. Several years later, it remains her research passion.

“They are important for monitoring freshwater systems,” Lauren explains. “The presence or absence of different groups of organisms offer a pretty clear picture of just how degraded an ecosystem is because some are sensitive to temperature change or increases in pollution.”

As an undergraduate, Lauren looked at the effect of fracking on water quality in her hometown — research that was continued by younger sister Olivia when she reached Ursinus — and later completed her master’s thesis on macroinvertebrates. While at Penn, she spent 18 months working at the Stroud Water Research Center and began a long-term monitoring process of restoration efforts at Runnymede Sanctuary in Chester County.

“I learned a lot not only about fresh water ecology and was surrounded by these absolutely brilliant scientists who love the things that I love,” Lauren says of her time at Stroud. “I am hoping to dive headfirst into environmental research again.”

The Pacific Northwest

Out in Seattle, Olivia McGrath is working for Beavers Northwest, a nonprofit organization that monitors how beavers influence Washington’s streams and advocates for the many benefits beavers provide through research, outreach and landowner assistance. Olivia is most interested in how the animals improve the health of the stream system and how that plays a role in the salmon population.

“They’re huge environmental engineers,” she says. “They can transform a system in a week. Humans change the environment so much and have such a dramatic effect on it, and beavers can improve the habitat for salmon and other spawning species that is quickly diminishing. They’re vital piece of a stream system that is often overlooked. That’s where the beavers come into play. They see these habitats as a place they can change and in turn, it creates a better habitat for the salmon.”

She says that there is now a healthy population of beavers in Washington after many had been hunted for their pelts.

Olivia also works at the Seattle Aquarium as a youth engagement mentor for high school volunteers and she plans to pursue her master’s degree and gain experience in as many scientific fields as possible.

Ursinus Roots

When talking about the path they’ve taken, each of the sisters have high praise for their Ursinus professors, including Goddard, Rich Wallace, a professor of environmental studies, and retired biology professors Jim Sidie and Peter Small.

“These are world-class biologists who aren’t dumbing it down for you because it’s an undergraduate course,” Emily McGrath says. “They were constantly challenging me. They’re phenomenal teachers and they get you engaged with sometimes very complex subjects and make you want to learn more. That’s invaluable for an early career scientist.”

Each sister worked closely with Ursinus professors on independent research projects that Lauren McGrath says were “really important to how we developed as scientists. The most beautiful thing about science at Ursinus is it allows students to become the scientists they want to be.”

Goddard is quick to return the compliment.

“It takes gumption, determination and hard work to gain experience to build your resume in ecological and environmental sciences because there is a great deal of competition among the many bright and talented people who are seeking opportunities,” the professor says. “The McGrath sisters have those traits. Emily, Lauren and Olivia were willing to work very hard, both physically and intellectually, and had the foresight to gain the experiences at Ursinus and after Ursinus to build very reputable careers. They are among the students I will always remember.” –by Ed Moorhouse