A winding path leads aquatic scientist to study water’s tiniest inhabitants
You’ve heard the phrase “When one door closes, another opens.” For Meagan Aliff, the closing of the company she worked for back in 2011 opened a door to graduate school and, eventually, to NRRI.
Aliff is a protistologist, an expert in the tiny critters at the bottom of the aquatic food chain – phytoplankton, diatoms and tiny invasive species -- so she spends a lot of time looking through a microscope. But as the seasons change, so do her tasks.
“The work I do is varied and sometimes fast-paced,” she said. “Winter is data entry, lab work and writing papers. But late spring to early fall I’m at a facility in Superior, Wisc., testing ship ballast treatment systems, validating the facility’s results, and helping with other projects. I also go on trips throughout the Great Lakes to test water in ship ballasts.”
On the long trips, Aliff sets up a temporary lab in a hotel and waits for colleagues to bring ballast water samples to her from a ship that is moored at a nearby port. There, she uses a microscope to identify what’s travelling in the ballasts. The samples come in sporadically – it could be 3 p.m. or 3 a.m. – but Aliff is always ready. This year, a week-long trip covered six states – from Minnesota to Ohio and back again.
“I am also working on a project to analyze sediment cores from the St. Louis River Estuary for metals which will teach us about industrial legacy pollution,” said Aliff. “Knowing the historic levels of certain contaminants can help Minnesota set reasonable standards for remediation.”
Meagan started her college career at Bowling Green University in Ohio with a nine-week geology field program, travelling across the U.S. in vans and sleeping in tents. She also considered careers in social work and creative writing. But it was a Biology 101 class that introduced her to diatoms and algae. She had found her focus.
“So then I switched majors again in my junior year and started taking biology classes,” she said. “But I still managed to graduate on time.”
In 2015, Aliff graduated with a master’s degree in the Water Resources Science program at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and then joined NRRI as a full-time aquatic research scientist. The Institute is also giving Aliff a chance to stretch – both personally and professionally – with a role as a founding member of NRRI’s Diversity-Equity-Inclusion (DEI) Committee, in which staff volunteers recommend policy and opportunities to NRRI leadership.
“That's a position I wouldn't have seen myself in 10 years ago,” said Aliff, “but with the murder of George Floyd in 2020, I felt like I needed to get involved in some way.”
Aliff takes good advantage of the broad expertise throughout NRRI – especially for geochemistry projects, where she needs geology and mineralogy data.
“I published two substantial papers in the journal PeerJ with help from our Minerals Research Group,” she said. “And I plan to bring them in to help me with minerals characterization for the St. Louis River Estuary project.”
She also collaborates regularly with professors in UMD’s Swenson College of Science and Engineering on the Great Waters Research Collaborative ballast water treatment system research.
It takes a lot of lab supplies and unique equipment to pull off the work Aliff does. She relies heavily on the purchasing support of Tammy Thomasson-Ehrhart to get what she needs. Given recent supply chain issues this is often quite challenging. She also gets assistance from shop professional Scott Johnson to construct specialized sediment sampling devices.
Aliff enjoys getting together with friends to play the fantasy Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game. She is also training her dog, Tahani, a rescued mix-breed, with a goal to compete in agility courses.
“She’s a really smart and energetic dog and these activities help her work out her physical and mental energy,” Aliff added.