Cooler by the lake
Even in an unusual semester, Loyola biology students are donning waterproof gear to study unwanted pollution in Chicago's waterways
Tim Hoellein loves to get his feet wet, in the most literal sense. An assistant professor of biology at Loyola University Chicago, he grew up in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, portions of the country where lovely lakes and rugged rivers have absorbed decades of industrial punishment. He’s devoted his academic career to aquatic ecology, particularly the study of freshwater pollution—how unwanted debris slips into our waterways and what happens when it does.
This past summer, Hoellein received a departmental email asking whether or not he could safely teach laboratory portions of his forthcoming upper-level biology course on limnology—Latin for “the study of lakes”—in person. In a normal semester, Hoellein would escort students to a variety of aquatic habitats, guiding them in the collection of water, microscopic organisms (like plankton), and invertebrates (like bugs and crayfish). That material is then processed and studied in a physical lab, which precedes detailed data analysis and a written report.
All of Hoellein’s personal field research had been wiped out for months on account of the pandemic; he was eager to pull on his waders in a way that could still be responsible. That email was a potential lifeline. “The highlight of the limnology class is this novel group experience for a lot of students: being in a kayak, getting onto a lake, or even walking on the beach and doing something that’s hands-on and collaborative,” he says. “I really look forward to it.”
See more: View our gallery of fall semester classes at Loyola
About half of Hoellein’s students were living in or near Chicago and were willing to meet with their classmates in person. To ease the burden on travel, he picked easily accessible locations to study: ponds near the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Lake Michigan beachfront near Lake Shore Campus, and the North Branch of the Chicago River. Everyone remained safely distanced. On the river, students wore masks inside individual kayaks, paddling along the banks to inspect the city’s once-toxic biological spine. From there, willing students brought their samples indoors, where Hoellein led sessions on identification and analysis. Public health was paramount; only six students attended the 45-minute lab sessions at a time, and each worked from their own bench.
For those who couldn’t attend in person, Hoellein devised entirely new online exercises, relying on his professional network for data set recommendations that, he hopes, have tangible, useful objectives. He understands that adjusting creatively to a remote learning environment is also his responsibility this semester, and one with which most Loyola faculty members are grappling. Nobody needs busy work during a pandemic.
That he’s been stuck at home since spring gave his excursions back to campus and the water extra meaning. Teaching in a way that approximates “normal” is a joy and a relief. “Just getting back out into the field is really uplifting for all sorts of reasons—the in-person interaction, being outside, doing this kind of work that is so enjoyable,” Hoellein says. “It’s such a rewarding experience.”