Q&A with David Costello, P.h.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences
Office of Sustainability Newsletter October 2020
What is your area of research?
I spend most of my time in streams trying to understand how human activities impair water quality and what the consequences are for the way freshwater ecosystems function. We rely on freshwaters for many services (e.g., cleaning our water, producing food, moving water off the land) but overuse can stress these ecosystems to a point where they are not functioning properly. My lab has a diversity of individual research projects going at any one time, but they all come back to this main theme.
What made you interested in pursuing this area?
I get really excited about complex problems, and trying to untangle the ecology of rivers and streams gives me lots of opportunities to wrestle with complexity. There is an old quote that says “you never step in the same river twice” and that truth makes trying to understand these systems a challenge. I also have always enjoyed working outside and visiting beautiful remote areas and this research takes me to some great places.
What is your favorite part of your position?
I love working with students and getting to share in their excitement and “aha!” moments. I get a lot of energy from seeing my undergrads develop a real excitement for doing research. I also love puzzling over data with my graduate students and seeing an explanation for the patterns develop. Without the energy of my students I would have a much harder time staying motivated.
What has been a favorite course that you teach? What do you enjoy about it?
My favorite course to teach is probably Stream Biology. In that class we spend a lot of time in the field and this gives students some hands-on experience with modern tools and techniques used to study streams. There are many great streams nearby and it is fun to get the students in waders and let them get their hands dirty/wet.
What are your favorite accomplishments or projects you have worked on so far?
I was part of a huge team of international scientists (150+ researchers) studying decomposition in streams on all seven continents from polar streams to tropical rivers. It was a grassroots project where we had an open invitation for researcher to participate and the buy-in was astounding. We gained new knowledge about how climate controls decomposition in rivers and are still learning more from this dataset. The whole project reminded me of how most scientists love collaborative work and we can learn a lot from relatively simple experiments.
How does your work or research relate to sustainability and/or climate change?
I’ve been involved in large projects looking at how temperature drives stream functions like decomposition and nutrient storage. We’ve shown that decomposition in rivers is very sensitive to temperature, and thus a warming climate may increase decomposition rates and create a positive feedback by releasing more CO2. I also have smaller-scale projects related to sustainability and green infrastructure. This includes a study of parking lot bioretention cells on campus and their ability to clean up stormwater. Those “overgrown” patches next to the C-Science lots are doing a good job pulling pollutants out of the water!
Thank you Dr. Dave Costello!