On a hot autumn day, graduate student Kali Boroughs didn’t mind getting a bit wet as she collected research samples from a creek near Galena, Kansas. She and classmate Joshua Holloway and a recent alumna, Alexandra King, stretched a seine across the water so that the current swept aquatic life into it. 

Their purpose: to determine how improved water quality in the Spring River and its tributaries has impacted fish and invertebrates. The two-year study is funded by a federal grant from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. 

For decades, the waterways had elevated levels of lead, zinc, and cadmium as a result of mining in the region. But work done by the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up mining sites means improved water quality. Could that mean healthier populations of fish and insects? 

“It’s a positive conservation story that the water has gotten so much better than it was 30 years ago,” said Assistant Professor of Biology 

James Whitney, who is leading the team. “Now, it’s important to determine how that has affected life in the water.” 

At 12 locations across a multi-county area, students assessed canopy cover, water depth and velocity, and habitat, and collected samples of species. Boroughs said the study provides an unparalleled opportunity for her as a student. 

“I love the chance to do real-world, hands-on work like this that’s meaningful,” she said.