Dr. Morgan Vis is an expert on the biogeography, systematics, and evolutionary relationships of freshwater red algae and the effects of pollution on freshwater algae. The inspiration to study this field of work came at a young age.
“I’m originally from Michigan and I grew up around the Great Lakes, so I was always interested in fresh water,” she says.
She became particularly interested in freshwater red algae after working with a professor during her time in college. Her interest in working with the biology of streams led her to Ohio University and its stream reclamation projects.
The University is located in a region where many streams have been declared biologically dead after suffering acid mine drainage, a form of pollution caused by the legacy of the lack of regulation in coal mining. Mine waste and metals in streams react with the water, acidifying the stream and killing off its organisms. Acid mine drainage occurs worldwide, but is not well known.
“I didn’t know anything about acid mine drainage before I came here,” Vis says. “It’s just not a form of pollution that you hear a lot about unless you live in a mining area.”
Vis works to understand the effects of both acid mine drainage and reclamation with a watershed restoration group in Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs. The team of researchers conducts chemical monitoring, analyzing the level of nutrients and/or pollution in water samples. They also use biological monitoring to analyze the organisms of the stream to understand how pollution altered the stream functioning.
“My key piece in the watershed group is algae,” Vis says. “There is someone who studies macrovertebrates, someone who studies fish and other people who study the hydrology and chemistry of the stream.”
The researchers are currently studying the food web of streams and how the low nutrients in water affect algae, macroinvertebrates and fish populations, she says.
“We’re trying to put together a more complete picture of the stream, and of course that requires a lot of different researchers all working together,” Vis says. “If we take everyone’s expertise and we put it together, then we can start to see the whole big picture.”
Vis also studies the evolutionary relationships of freshwater red algae, or how different species are related to one another. The National Science Foundation established a grant program called the Tree of Life to flesh out the evolution of all organisms on Earth. Vis researched these evolutionary relationships to contribute to the Red Tree of Life, a subcategory of the program.
Through studying DNA sequencing evidence from genes coupled with morphology, or the study of the form and structure of organisms, Vis discovered that freshwater red algae are variously related to different marine groups.
“This means that at some point in history, marine algae have invaded fresh waters a number of times throughout evolutionary history, as opposed to it happening just once,” she says.