“As soon as I could walk, I was out hiking and in nature. I love exploring the world.”
It all started with a river.
There were acres of forest behind her childhood home and nestled amongst the trees was a small river. As soon as she could walk, Emily Hall, a Ph.D. student in the Washington State University School of Biological Sciences, was out in the forest and along the banks of the river, looking for slimy things under logs and playing in the water.
“I was always in love with the water,” Hall says with a laugh. “I’m more of a fish than a person.”
Whenever Hall went out to her river, she was on a quest to find the creatures of the forest and unravel their secrets. She was constantly asking questions: How do fish survive under the ice? How does the movement of the water affect the creatures that live in the river? What did these creatures look like up close? Her parents, noticing their daughter’s obsession, continued to encourage her curiosity.
“My first memory of something scientific was my parents buying me a water-testing kit,” Hall says. “I went into the woods and tested the water of our river for pollutants. From then on my adventures outdoors were steered by my curiosity in science.”
When Hall was in high school, her family moved from New Jersey to Michigan and she had to leave her beloved river behind. But, much like the tadpoles she chased as a child, Hall was destined to return to the water.
It was the summer of 2007, the first summer of Hall’s undergrad at Michigan State University. She was an environmental biology and zoology student and was still on the fence about pursuing a degree in research, but she knew she loved science. She took as many science classes as she could, but it wasn’t enough.
It was a study abroad flyer hanging on a bulletin board in the zoology department that got her back on track.
“It was advertising a tropical biology course in Costa Rica at a research station called La Suerte Biological Research Station,” Hall says. During the three-week course, Hall worked with researchers from around the globe and got to conduct her own project from start to finish.
Hall wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to research, until one day she decided to take a hike through the forest.
“I was hiking around the rainforest and was so taken aback when I hit the edge,” she says. “Once you left the forest it was so dead and depressing. You went from this dark, damp area filled with life to basically a desert in just a few short steps.”
Clear cutting large patches of forest to make room for farms and ranches is a common practice in Costa Rica, Hall explains. In America, farmers will leave vegetation along the edges of the river to prevent erosion, but in Costa Rica there are so many streams. If the farmers left vegetation they would lose huge pieces of land, she says.
Experiencing the drastic difference between the forest and farmlands, Hall decided to study how cattle ranching affected the invertebrate communities in the streams. Without vegetation along the rivers to prevent run off from the farms the water quality would decrease, affecting the forest, the people, and even the cattle.
“I think I found my passion for science in Costa Rica, being responsible for conducting my own experiment and really getting to ask whatever question I was interested in.”
And so, Hall ended up back in the water.
“Again I was working in streams and working in water and happy, like I was a kid just playing around, catching bugs,” she says with a laugh. “I think I found my passion for science in Costa Rica, being responsible for conducting my own experiment and really getting to ask whatever question I was interested in.”
Knee deep in the water, Hall spent her days collecting samples and tracking invertebrate population levels in the streams. She found that the center of the forest was mostly protected from the erosion.
After three weeks, Hall completed her research and headed back to the states. Although not the most groundbreaking research she admits, Hall’s work in Costa Rica had inspired her. Water was the source of life and vitality and also the most susceptible to human influence. She wanted to continue working with it, in it, and near it.
“The wetlands are the interface between two worlds and this space has so much life.”
After spending her undergraduate career working in the water, Hall knew she wanted to continue her work with freshwater ecosystems and amphibians. As she approached the end of her time at Michigan State University, she went on a quest to find her next step.
Hall turned to the internet for more information. That’s when she came across the name of a Washington State University professor who was trying to answer a very interesting question.
Erica Crespi had just started at WSU as an assistant professor in the School of Biological Science. With a background in ecological developmental biology, Crespi was interested in how physiological measures could be used to indicate a population’s health. She was specifically interested in frog populations and that was something Hall could get behind.
When Hall arrived in Pullman, Crespi immediately turned her around and sent her off to Connecticut to work with a Ph.D. student at Yale. Crespi wanted to collect data on frog populations at a microscale, specifically how road salt affected the tadpoles. It was much easier to collect this data in New England because they have more bodies of water, some near roads and some far, which allowed Hall to see just exactly how salt affected wood frogs.
After her first summer in Connecticut, Hall had discovered something: the salt levels in the water seemed to affect the frogs’ susceptibility to disease. She saw huge die offs in her monitored populations, which put her on the path to start her own research project on the connection between salt levels and frog health.
Hall and Crespi are both conducting groundbreaking work, even if frog population levels seem like a minor thing. Frogs play a key part in the wetlands and the wetlands play a key part in the lives of humans, Hall says.
“Frogs play an important role in the ecosystem as a whole,” Hall explains. “Without a key group like amphibians, a lot of services will be less efficient. The wetlands filter our water. If we remove a valuable part of the food web, then this function will be less efficient.”
Over her career Hall has found that educating the public on the importance of her research can be difficult and therefore finding funding can be a challenge. About a year into her graduate schooling she decided to apply for the Environmental Protection Agency STAR Fellowship in 2012.
The fellowship was for $84,000 and it was geared toward graduate students who were interested in environmental research. She applied for the aquatic ecosystems fellowship, hoping for funding in 2013.
“The wetlands filter our water. If we remove a valuable part of the food web, then this function will be less efficient.”
“I worked very hard on a detailed grant proposal,” Hall says, laughing as she thinks back on her first attempt. “They told me they weren’t funding projects that year. That’s the depressing part of academic: budget cuts.”
At the time, her work in Connecticut hinged on the EPA fellowship. She just couldn’t afford it without the extra help.
“I was at a crossroad,” she says. “Should I continue working with road salts or look in biogeography like Erica?”
It was battle between practical and theoretical. Hall wanted to continue looking at a specific environment disturbance rather than study a broad theoretical question. It was a chance, but Hall decided to follow her heart and continue looking into road salts.
To her relief, the funding came back in 2014.
Now, the fellowship covers her tuition, her travel, and her supplies. Whatever else she needs is covered by internal grants through WSU. Without this support, who knows if Hall could continue.
“Of course for me, publicly funded research is incredibly important because a lot of conservation issues are not going to be as economically beneficial,” Hall explains. “There isn’t really a market to research why frogs are dying.”
“Once I started getting my hands in the data, I started asking way more questions/ What does this mean? What was next?”
Deep in the woods of Connecticut, Hall was completely alone. It was the summer of 2011 and all she had was a truck and the GPS coordinates for a handful of ponds.
Well, she thought to herself, it was time to get to work.
Hall had just been picked up from the airport by her research counterpart at Yale and driven to the Yale-Myers Forest in northeastern Connecticut. Her task: monitor populations of wood frogs in ponds along the roads. Unfortunately, Hall’s partner been pulled away to work on another project. It was up to Hall to run the project, by herself.
“I was running the project by myself, no advisors at all,” Hall says. “That project was my baby. It was my first time out there doing something that I cared about that was wholly mine.”
“It made me realize that something was affecting the tadpoles’ susceptibility to the virus. It was like they were trying to deal with the salt.”
In field biology, one has to get a little imaginative, Hall explains. When it came to housing the tadpoles, Hall wanted to keep her populations in their natural environment, but also needed to ensure that her populations remained intact. She needed a way to keep them in and keep predators out.
“For this experiment I had to set up these mesh enclosures, so I built circular fences and then wrapped mesh cloth around it so that insects and predators couldn’t get in,” she explains. “I’ve also kept tadpoles in little kiddie pools, which it’s always amusing to go to Home Depot or the hardware store and ask for 26 kiddie pools. I get some weird looks.”
Once she got the hang of creating the enclosures, she thought she was set, but Connecticut had something else in store for her.
During summer in New England thunderstorms are not uncommon. In fact, Hall often enjoyed the sound of the storms, until one a big one rolled through. At the time, Hall was staying in a one room cabin with white plywood walls and a single, leaky window, by herself in the woods. It kept her close to her tadpoles, but it put her right in the middle of the storm by herself.
“The thunder shook everything and the wind knocked down a tree near my cabin and another near one of the tadpole enclosures,” Hall says. “I really lucked out that night. A tornado touched down about eight to ten miles away from me and cleared a strip of forest.”
Thankfully, Hall and her tadpoles survived the worst of it. She checked all of the enclosures the next morning and nothing had been severely damaged.
It wasn’t until her tadpoles arrived back at Pullman that things started to go a little awry.
The tadpoles Hall had sent back to Pullman were dying. Back in Connecticut, she was also seeing huge die offs in her ponds. The ponds were almost unrecognizable, covered in thick layers of dead tadpoles. She was devastated.
It was Jesse Brunner, another professor in the School of Biological Sciences and Hall’s other advisor, who figured out what was wrong. He’d been studying the ranavirus in frogs and he noticed that the tadpoles had similar symptoms.
After talking with Brunner and continuing to study her ponds, Hall realized that only some of the ponds had such huge mortality events and these were the ponds near the roads.
“It made me realize that something was affecting the tadpoles’ susceptibility to the virus,” Hall explains. “I salvaged my data from the project and found that the animals in the road side ponds were growing slower. It was like they were trying to deal with the salt.”
Now, Hall was on to something. How was the salt affecting the tadpoles? She had to find out.
“I did a lot of research at Michigan State, but I didn’t feel a lot of ownership over it,” Hall says, recalling her first taste of research during her undergrad. It was rewarding, but nothing like her work now.
“This project was really the start of my passion for research,” she admits.
Now, five years later, Hall spends her summers in Connecticut, studying wood tadpoles and traipsing through the forest, returning to WSU in the fall to continue her research and work alongside Crespi. It’s a weird arrangement, but it works for Hall.
“I didn’t come to WSU thinking I was going to study road salt,” she says, laughing. “Sometimes in science you follow the interesting questions, even if it doesn’t make logistical sense.”
“Freshwater ecosystems are the most impacted by human modifications.”
Sometimes, Hall thinks she’s found paradise.
It’s a beautiful summer day in the Yale-Myers Forest of Connecticut. Alone in a one-room cabin in the middle of the woods, Hall climbs out of bed and gets ready for a day of field research in the woods.
Could there be a better way to spend the day? She doesn’t think so.
The first thing she grabs is her waders, her thigh high rubber boots that protect her legs and feet from the water as she wades into a pond to count tadpoles. Usually she’ll also grab a water-quality meter, just in case she needs to grab samples, and a net to catch the tadpoles. If she’s going to catch tadpoles, she’ll also need a cooler to house them in.
And, of course, she’ll need to bring a book. Something in the fantasy genre should do just fine. She’s always been fond of Lord of the Rings.
Her motley assortment in tow, Hall heads out. Sometimes, she’ll hop in her car and drive along the forest road. More often though, she’ll hike out.
All of this preparation links back to her main question: How are road salts affecting the frog populations?
To help prove her theory, Hall is collaborating with other WSU researchers to collect and analyze water samples, monitor population sizes, and assess the frogs’ health. To do this without killing the frog, Hall is using a new technique called eDNA, which is a system that can determine if the virus and frogs are present with only a water sample.
And so far, it doesn’t look good for the frogs.
“So the bottom line of my research is that we’re applying extreme amounts of road salt to the roads in the northeast and the Midwest,” she explains. “What I’m finding with my research is that these elevated salinity levels may be sub-lethal. Wood frogs are not necessarily dying from these concentrations, but it’s having an effect on their susceptibility to disease, which puts them over the edge.”
Basically, these tadpoles are under a lot of stress trying to deal with the road salt, she says. The tadpoles are spending too much time trying to process the salt and not enough growing big and strong.
“It’s like when you’re under a lot of stress because of a meeting or a big exam coming up,” Hall says. “Your body’s going through changes that often suppress your immune system and make you more susceptible to disease. The same thing is happening to these tadpoles.”
“You can replace your brakes. You can’t replace the animals and plants that are dying.”
Unfortunately, saving tadpole populations is not the highest priority to the public, Hall admits. More often than not people are more concerned about the safety of the roads and therefore rely on road salt to remove ice and snow. The only complaint they have is that it will damage car parts, not that it’s killing animal population, Hall says.
“I wouldn’t want my brakes to go out either, but you can replace your brakes,” she says. “You can’t replace the animals and plants that are dying.”
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the amphibian populations, Hall says. Frogs often act as sentinel species, she explains, which means they’re the first species to be affected when something goes awry in the environment.
If the frogs are dying off that means the rest of the ecosystem is often at risk.
“Working with undergraduates in the lab is really rewarding because I get to watch their excitement and energy grow as they conduct their own research and explore ideas and set them on a path, maybe for a career in science.”
She was in the final stretch of her undergraduate at Michigan State University and Hall was interested in moving on to grad school. She browsed the internet, reading recently published scientific papers and looking at shots of campus, but a picture of a campus just wasn’t enough, she remembers.
Thankfully, one school offered to pay for her travel. In early 2011, Hall flew out to Pullman to visit the WSU School of Biological Sciences.
“I really liked that there was an in-person interview event at WSU. It wasn’t just Skype or a phone call,” she says. “I was also happy that they paid. You just can’t understand the atmosphere of Pullman and WSU from so far away.”
When she arrived, it was a bit of a shock, but in the best way possible. A native of the east coast and Midwest, Hall wasn’t prepared for the welcoming culture or the beautiful landscape she found on the Palouse.
“Pullman itself is surrounded by such a different landscape than anywhere else I’ve been,” she laughs. “The rolling hills are just breathtaking and I’m still not used to it. In a good way.”
Before Pullman, Hall had also been closer to big cities. She’d grown up near Detroit and New York and had never experienced a small town. She took to it very quickly.
But, it would take more than a beautiful view and welcoming small town feel for Hall to decide to stay somewhere. Was the faculty the right fit? Could she find someone to work with?
“Some people joke that picking your advisor is like picking a spouse, so you can imagine how getting along with your advisor is going to seal the deal,” Hall laughs.
And WSU did not disappoint.
“When I came to WSU, I felt like I saw a great relationship between the faculty and the graduate students,” she says. “There was lots of social events and fun things to do. It wasn’t all lab work.”
Five years later, when she’s not in Connecticut doing field work, Hall is trying to give back to the community that welcomed her with open arms. In addition to teaching and mentoring undergraduates, she’s now part of the Biology Graduate Student Association, which is the group that put on the spring time symposium she attended as a prospective student visiting WSU. The symposium is a way to introduce potential graduate students to Pullman and help them feel at home in the Palouse.
“Inspiring kids that they can also do this as a career someday is really just rewarding.”
The BGSA also puts on community outreach days, which are events designed to introduce elementary school children to the wonders of science and nature. During the outreach days, the club will meet out a Phillips Farm and set up science booths to show children things under the microscope or help them spot birds in the wild.
“A goal I’d like to achieve in life is to inspire the same excitement and passion for the natural world that I was given as a kid,” Hall says with a smile. “Inspiring kids that they can also do this as a career someday is really just rewarding.”
When thinking about the future, Hall has big ideas. Yes, continuing her groundbreaking research plays a key role, but she would also like to have a hands-on part when it comes to the next generation of scientists.
And, of course, her journey to help create the next group of scientists starts in a river.
“I love seeing the kids’ faces when they find something small and slimy and they’re really excited by the small details of the natural world around them,” Hall says. “It just brings me back to my childhood and how exciting it was to flip over a log and find a frog. I’m so lucky to get to do this as a career.”