A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: TMU’s Field Station starting next 50 years of river research, education, outreach

By Dr. Chris Lorentz
Thomas More University

Part 51 of our series “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021

In 2017, Thomas More University (TMU) celebrated the 50th year anniversary of our Biology Field Station—a state-of-the-art STEM facility located on the banks of the Ohio River. Since acquiring the property, a former Army Corps Lock and Dam facility, in 1967, the Field Station has served undergraduate students, K-12 schools, and the public through research, education, and outreach programs.

Research Lab Building: The Center for Ohio River Research & Education houses a classroom, office space, and three labs for the conservation of aquatic organisms and water quality monitoring. (Courtesy of Dr. Chris Lorentz)

In 2018, with the construction of the STEM Outreach Center, the Field Station completed its 25-year Facilities Master Plan.

A boathouse, conference center, four labs, three classrooms, and an outdoor classroom round out the academic buildings, along with four residences for summer interns and visitors. Since its humble beginnings, with a few dedicated biology faculty and like-minded students, the Field Station has grown to become a year-round center for Ohio River Research & Education, drawing students from around the country and working with federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (See also this NKyTribune history column)

A signature program at the station involves undergraduate research internships. Beginning in 1971 and every year since, students conduct research, collect organisms and measure water quality parameters in what has become the longest-continuous survey on the Ohio River. With over five decades of scientific data, we have documented significant changes and improvements in the overall health of the ecosystem. Each year, 10-12 students are selected from a highly competitive, national pool of applicants from as far away as California and Puerto Rico.

Education Conference Center: Also known as the Lodge, this building is a multi-purpose facility that contains a classroom, living area, full kitchen, office, four restrooms and eleven bedrooms. (Courtesy of Dr. Chris Lorentz)

Interns conduct research in fields of aquatic biology, ecology, environmental science, and field biology. Projects involve animal husbandry, bioassessments, fisheries, harmful algal bloom monitoring and eco-toxicology, among others. Through the experience, students gain an increased understanding of, and proficiency with: research practices and processes; discipline-specific concepts and content; stronger skills in discipline-specific methods and procedures; expanded professional networks; and a greater sense of belonging in the scientific community. The program has been nationally recognized for its positive impact on the development of students in the STEM disciplines. The retention and graduation rate of Field Station interns is 100% with a 90%+ placement rate into graduate school or places of employment.

The Biology Field Station, with its unique facilities, innovative programs, and immersive learning environment offers a transformative experience for undergraduate and K-12 students alike.

Collaborations are also at the heart of the Field Station. Formal agreements exist between the station and largest federal agencies in the environmental fields — the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — both of which offer technical expertise, equipment, and mentoring for our students and faculty. In addition, the station works closely with the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) and the Sanitation District No. 1 (SD1) to assess and monitor the waterways throughout our region.

The Lab Crew (Left to Right) Ámbar Del Mar Nevarez Pagan (Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, Puerto Rico), Nicole Arkenau (Thomas More University), and Sarah Kerr (Middle Tennessee State University). This group of undergraduate interns maintains our aquaculture and propagation systems for aquatic species of special concern, such as the hellbenders shown here and freshwater mussels. (Courtesy of Dr. Chris Lorentz)

Most recently, the Field Station is working closely with the Greater Cincinnati Water Works and the Northern Kentucky Water District to safeguard public health through the protection of our drinking water sources. Specifically, a flow-through gas chromatograph and multi-parameter chemical probes will be installed at the station to closely monitor the water quality of the Ohio River upstream of the drinking water intakes.

Field Stations sit at the interface between environmental protection and public health.

Alongside the research, a wide variety of education, outreach, and social activities take place at the Field Station. They include overnight retreats, workshops, STEM camps and conferences, particularly with the addition of the Conference Center, a LEED-certified building, and the K-12 STEM Outreach Center.

With overnight accommodations for up to 40 people and state-of-the-art teaching facilities embedded in the natural environment, the number and diversity of users, including academic departments from campus, athletic teams, local K-12 schools, and the surrounding community, have increased significantly.
The importance of protecting our waterways has increased significantly too. Towards this end, the Field Station works closely with the Ohio River Basin Alliance (ORBA).

The Alliance is a collaboration of stakeholders for water resource priorities of the Ohio River Basin striving to sustain healthy ecosystems and river communities and vibrant water-dependent economies.

2021 Undergraduate Research Interns: Each year, the Biology Field Station selects up to 16 undergraduate students from around the country to live onsite and conduct research in the fields of aquatic ecology and environmental science. These students also serve as environmental educators and mentors for our STEM outreach programs. (Courtesy of Dr. Chris Lorentz)

Members from over 130 organizations—including local, state, and federal agencies, as well as commissions, industry, academia, and not-for-profit organizations—are working together to provide a unified voice for the Ohio River. As the only academic research facility along the entire 981-mile length of the river, the Field Station plays a key role in environmental protection, public health, and the sustainability of our communities that depend on the river in many ways. We are looking forward to the next 50 years of river research and beyond.

Dr. Chris Lorentz is Professor of Biological Sciences at Thomas More University and Director of the University’s Biology Field Station and Environmental Science Program. He recently served as President of the Organization of Biological Field Stations, an international scientific society with 240 member stations across 21 countries on six continents. As president, he led a strategic planning effort to highlight the value of field stations for undergraduates, K-12 students, and the general public. To learn more about the Field Station or to schedule a visit, please contact Dr. Lorentz at  lorentc@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

The River Crew: (Left to Right) Christian Slone (Murray State University), Sawyer Lorentz (Thomas More University), Spencer Trimpe (Thomas More University), Molly Williams (Hillsdale College), Hannah Gill (Ohio Northern University) and Ignacio Gotelli ( Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, Puerto Rico). The group conducts our annual bioassessment and fish survey of the Ohio River that began in 1971. (Courtesy of Dr. Chris Lorentz)

K-12 STEM Outreach Center: This building serves our STEM outreach programs including daylong field trips, camps, and workshops. It houses the “George A. and Delores E. Renaker Family Foundation” Classroom with distance-learning technology and other high-tech features. (Courtesy of Dr. Chris Lorentz)

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