Loyola University Chicago

Department of Biology

Lauren Wisbrock Project Description

Title: Anthropogenic Litter in Illinois Streams: Monitoring, Distribution, and Relationship to Biological Indicators of Stream Health


Anthropogenic litter (i.e., trash; AL) is increasing in aquatic ecosystems worldwide.  AL shows a patchy,  uneven distribution in lotic ecosystems due to heterogeneity in its sources, how it moves, and mechanisms of retention. In addition, the diversity of material types, size, and mobility makes developing techniques to measure AL assemblage in rivers a challenge. In rivers, watershed land-use and riparian features likely impact AL abundance and composition, but this impact is not fully understood. Measuring AL can be time consuming and labor intensive, so rapid assessments are needed for ecosystem managers to quantify the level of AL impairment in a stream. The objectives of the research in this thesis were to 1) quantify the relationship between AL abundance, mass, and composition in streams to different watershed land use and a range of  riparian features and 2) determine the efficacy of two rapid AL measurement methods: a qualitative assessment and a visual tally. We measured AL in 30-m reaches of 9 streams across northeast Illinois which span a gradient of land use and biological quality using the 2 rapid methods and manual collection. Results showed AL abundance (as No./m2) and the proportion of AL produced from single-use items (i.e., plastic and glass) were positively related to urban watershed land use, population density, and impervious surface cover and negatively related to agricultural land use. Local features that increase access to the river (e.g.,  proximity to roads and urbanized riparian zones) were associated with higher AL. The visual tally was predictive of AL density across sites as revealed through manual collection but underestimated total AL, particularly for ‘cryptic’ categories (i.e., easily overlooked or layered materials). Accurately quantifying AL abundance, composition, and relationships with watershed and stream features is essential to identifying the sources, transport, and fate of AL as well as supporting successful management of AL in streams.



The completion of this thesis would not have been possible without the support of my wonderful community. My advisor, Tim Hoellein, has been such a rock, especially through this last year and a half. He has been such a wonderful example of compassion, professionalism, and open communication in the face of unanticipated challenges. His encouragement has allowed me to take things one day at a time and celebrate progressive growth through what can feel like a stagnant process. He’s also been instrumental in helping find the path I wish to pursue after completing my degree and has allowed me to grow in the skills I need for that path, outside of my direct research goals. It’s been a privilege to learn Marty Berg and John Kelly, whose expertise and insight have improved my ability to read and think critically. They’re excellent examples of what it looks like to follow your passion with dedication and drive. I want to send a huge thank our partners from California, Shelly Moore and Tony Hale, whose work has instilled in me the importance of engaging all kinds of stakeholders when working with systems as complex and importance as our fresh waters. To all the teachers I’ve partnered while earning my degree, thank you for your willingness to collaborate and for letting me learn from your students likely twice as much as they learned from me. I would also like to thank the Biology Department, including Virginia Lorenzo, Audrey Berry, and Terry Grande who support us graduate students in so many essential, behind the scenes ways. Thank you Joe Milanovich for being such a fierce advocate for students and for the additional push I needed in these last few months to get out the door. I’d also like to thank my fellow graduate students for their camaraderie and friendship. I would especially like to thank Erica Becker. She helped keep me grounded, maintain perspective, and realize that I’m not alone. Finally, I would like to thank my friends and family, who are always so willing to hear me ramble about garbage and have supported me through an entire career change. The success of this thesis is all of ours, I could not have done it without each and every one of you. Thank you.



Lauren Wisbrock was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, moving into the city for her undergraduate studies at Loyola University. She graduated with both a degree in biology and secondary education and then taught high school at Palatine, Schaumburg, and Conant high schools. While teaching with the Summer Enrichment At Loyola program for high schoolers in the summer of 2017, which encouraged students to explore different STEM careers, she realized that she would like to explore those careers herself. She joined Tim Hoellein’s lab for the fall of 2018.

While earning her master’s degree, Lauren was still interested in exploring the intersection of science and education, partnering with teachers to create materials that incorporate her research into the curriculum of K-12 classes. She was also the President of the Biology Graduate Student Association, a member of the Graduate Student Advisory Council, and the Social Media Chair of the Society for Freshwater Science’s Student Resource Committee. She also volunteered on the floor of the Shedd Aquarium, engaging with the public about the amazing animals that live there. She hopes to find a position at one of the amazing zoos, aquariums, or museums in Chicago, where she currently lives with her husband, Adam, and her cat, Darwin.


Committee Members:

Timothy J. Hoellein

Martin B. Berg

John J. Kelly