A Passion for Water
“Spend time outside and check out a local stream. Take a net and explore what is in there,” Becca Meerdink, a senior in environmental science at Iowa State University, advises young people. “You would be surprised what is in there. Look at the land and see how it impacts water. Get out there and appreciate it and you will care more about it!”
Becca’s love for water started at an early age when she would explore the small creek on the edge of her family’s property near Akron in northwest Iowa.
“My sisters and I would play in the creek,” she said, “looking for snails and insects.” She jokes that she has been “swimming with algae since I was four years old,” and she has loved every minute of it.
As she got older, her water world expanded through yearly trips to Okoboji, where the family would explore all the channels, nooks and crevices in the Iowa Great Lakes area.
Interest Turns to Involvement
In high school, under the encouragement of her father, a high school physics and chemistry teacher, Becca became involved in a water monitoring project that analyzed three small creeks that drained into the Big Sioux River. She spent two years observing the water bodies, collecting water samples and running chemical analysis of the samples. The students pinpointed the most contaminated sections of the creeks.
In January 2008, Becca and other high school students presented their findings at the Westfield town hall to a gathering of landowners, local stakeholders, state agencies, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach personnel and Farm Bureau members.
“The room was packed and everyone was very respectful during the presentation,” Becca explains. “However, after we were finished, people in the audience started arguing, pointing fingers and accusing one another. I was really taken back by that behavior.”
Finding Solutions to Real Problems
Despite the tensions in the room, the local stakeholders formed a coalition to address problems and find solutions. The high school students agreed to do more testing to find specific points of direct contamination.
This experience caused Becca to begin to pay more attention to the landscape, and how the choices people made impacted water quality.
“I would see corn planted all the way to the edge of the stream, mattresses under the stream that were burned. The smells were really bad, and there was pretty bad streambank erosion. It was frustrating because I had been near water and appreciated it from a young age. I could see from the data collected that all these practices were having a negative impact on the streams.”
This work during high school helped her set the larger life goal of becoming an environmental scientist. For the past four years, Becca has been awarded an undergraduate research grant, funded by NASA and the Iowa Space Grant Consortium, allowing her to pursue personal research interests. For her senior project, she will be working on research that is attempting to develop a method for in-field or in-stream nitrate testing.
Looking to the Future
“I am excited to see what future research will show about the relationship between land and water. I am passionate about helping to create tools that will better help us measure water quality issues and can be used to motivate farmers to change some of their practices.”
In addition to her academic work, Becca has also served as an Iowa Learning Farms intern for the past two summers. She has traveled to 60 events, teaching Iowans, including many young people, about water quality and conservation. She served as a liaison for Dr. Matt Helmers’ water quality research labs, transporting, ﬁltering and testing water samples collected by ISU field research teams.
Becca will further her professional development in graduate school next year. “I plan to continue studying the relationships between agriculture and water quality. I’m looking all over the country, but Iowa State may be the best fit for my graduate research too!"
So, what began as a 4-year old in a creek has become a lifelong passion.
This photograph is Becca monitoring water in the Little Sioux River while attending a 4 week ecology course at Iowa Lakeside Lab.