Cool Jobs: The Biogeographer

Friday - 10/7/2011, 2:01am EDT

Jennifer Krstolic is a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, biogeographer and modern-day explorer.

Clad in hiking boots, rain jacket and USGS cap, Krstolic makes a path through the waist-high brush along the Shenandoah River in Clarke County, Va., one recent morning. She and colleague Roger Moberg are searching for lag bolts, or large screws, hammered into 20 tree trunks along the river.

The lag bolts were put in the trees in the late 1990s. They serve as markers, telling the geologists where along the riverbank the water level was measured. Krstolic must find the markers in order to take more measurements. Ultimately, the measurements will help the government — in this case Clarke and neighboring counties — set policies on water usage in order to preserve water levels and fish habitats.

Jennifer Krstolic, biogeographer, U.S. Geological Survey

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"It's a little bit of exploration," Krstolic said. "There's certainly nothing like American explorers or people sailing across the world, but I feel sometimes we're going places and finding things where people haven't been or they haven't been in a long time."

The task of finding the markers, however, is not always as straightforward as it seems. GPS points give a relative cross-section but do not pinpoint the exact locations of the lag bolts. And the notes left by the previous researchers are sketchy at best.

"Look for the pull-off. Follow the path by the river by the elm tree to the river," one page of notes read.

"And there's no pull-off. There's no path. There is an elm tree but that's it," Krstolic said.

What's more, the landscape has changed plenty in the last 15 years.

Moberg waves a metal detector across the base of the trees in the vicinity of the GPS points. The two walk from tree to tree, looking for a silver maple or a leaning tree described in the notes.

This part, being outdoors and collecting the data, is her favorite part of the job, Krstolic said.


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Map showing location of Berryville, Va., where Krstolic and Moberg spent a few days working along the Shenandoah River.
As her title suggests, Krstolic's work combines geography, biology and water.

"Geographers like to understand why things are where they are, the spatial distribution of things," Krstolic said. "My work's always been related to habitat, the things in the environment organisms need in order to live."

A native of Ohio, Krstolic grew up hiking and camping with her family. She received a Master's in geography at the University of Tennessee where she studied the habitats of fresh-water mussels. That work led her to a job with the USGS water resources division.

Krstolic said she wanted to work at USGS because it has a reputation for high-quality, consistent data collection, and she wanted to work in applied research.

"Not just research for research's sake but to gain an understanding so it can be used."

Krstolic is only one of three women — out of a staff of 40 — who does science-related work at her Richmond, Va., office. "People ask me, 'Why do you want to tramp around in the river or walk around in trees and forests?' I don't know. I enjoy it."

After a few fruitless attempts to find the markers, Krstolic and Moberg drive to a nearby GPS point. As they get out of the car, Moberg, who was on the original survey team 15 years ago, says he has a good feeling about this site.

The notes tell them the marker is located two trees from a fence. What's left of the fence today is a wooden post. And it's unclear how far the marked tree is from the shore.

Then, Krstolic points.

"Do you see that?"

A black plastic zip tie sticks out of the trunk and, partially embedded in the bark, is the rusty head of the lag bolt.

"Roger said he had a good feeling," Krstolic says.

Technology — like planes that shoot lasers into rivers to measure water depths — is making the need for field work less necessary. But Krstolic said she thinks part of the job will always be in the field.

"You learn a lot more about the environment by being there," she said.

Story and audio slideshow by Jolie Lee.

This story is part of the Cool Jobs in Government series.