HAZLETON, Pa. – A self-proclaimed “total fish geek,” Megan Schall has been passionate for a long time about nature and the environment. Her lifelong interest in waterways and aquatic life began with fishing since before she can remember and moved on to working with neighborhood kids on stream improvement projects, studying aquatic biology in high school, and researching fish health (and related human impacts) in college.
"My dad was a fisheries biologist and he taught me to appreciate nature at a young age," Schall recalled. "As a child, we had a pontoon boat and would go boating and fishing in the local lake. My dad helped cultivate my fascination for the natural world. He had me turn over rocks to look for aquatic invertebrates and I remember being amazed about the world beneath the surface."
Now, as an assistant professor of biology at Penn State Hazleton, Schall is able to combine all her interests: teaching; continuing her research into fish health, fish movement, and the overall health of the rivers and streams they live in; intertwining fisheries ecology with human impacts and broader environmental concerns; working with multidisciplinary research teams; involving her students in her research; and mentoring students as they begin to shape their careers.
At the Hazleton campus, she has set up a molecular genetics research lab (where students assist in her research) and continues her work on interdisciplinary research that integrates fish ecology with fisheries management. (A recreational fishery, in the lingo of Schall’s world, means a natural waterway, like a river or a stream, where non-commercial anglers fish for sport, recreation, or personal use.)
Schall has two advanced degrees from Penn State (a master’s degree in wildlife and fisheries science and a doctorate in ecology) and a B.S. degree in biology from Lock Haven University. She said her early academic career was full of “winding roads, left turns, and right turns,” but eventually it led to a research project on smallmouth bass ecology and health in the Susquehanna River — a turning point in her career.
"I ended up finding myself through the process," she said.
For the past six and a half years, Schall has collaborated with state and federal agencies, academic institutions, and anglers on continuing studies into smallmouth bass populations in the Susquehanna. In October 2019, at the annual Susquehanna River symposium (“Healthy River, Healthy Communities”) at Bucknell University, she co-presented a paper on the complex dynamics of fish populations in the Susquehanna with Geoffrey Smith, a Susquehanna River biologist at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Smallmouth bass were introduced into the Susquehanna in the late 1800s and the river soon became a world-class fishery. But since the early 2000s, smallmouth have shown the characteristics of disease, including lesions, black spots, and deformities.
As far back as 2013, as a Ph.D. student at Penn State, Schall was implanting radio transmitters in smallmouth bass to track their movements as part of a study into fish diseases in the river system.
The impact of health problems with smallmouth bass goes way beyond the fish themselves, Schall said.
"These fish live in this water, but who uses this water? Animals that drink from the river, or birds that feed on smallmouth bass, or other organisms within the system. How is it affecting them?” Schall said. "Also, the Susquehanna is a drinking water source for millions of people. So when you start to see smallmouth bass having problems, you have to step back and think about the bigger picture."
Schall said that her research has been important for the state Fish and Boat Commission’s management of the smallmouth bass in the river system. Her studies showed much more fish movement between the river and its tributaries than Commission personnel expected.
“We’re talking tens of miles, potentially,” she said. "It changed their perspective of how they viewed the system. So, recently they’re using that [finding] to help inform some of their management strategies and how they think about the system and the movement of these fish seasonally."
Currently, Schall is starting up a molecular-based diet study of flathead catfish in the Susquehanna that will involve her students. Recently introduced into the river, flathead catfish "are voracious predators," Schall said. "They eat pretty much anything and everything. So the concern is, as they are moving up in the system, what are they eating and what consequences could that have for the different prey communities in the fish communities that are living there?"
The technique is to collect the fish and look at what they ate, which "ends up being mostly mashed-up goo and fish parts," Schall said. Working with and directed by Schall in her molecular lab on campus, students will use DNA analysis to determine what the food is.
When Schall enlists students to help with her research, usually aiming for one or two a semester, she doesn’t give them menial projects.
"I get them involved in my research," she said. "My goal for that is to help them learn and be exposed to science and how it is done."
Schall also likes to design labs for students in her biology classes that help them learn techniques scientists would actually use in the field. Rather than have them simply perform a step-by-step protocol in a “cookbook lab,” Schall gears them up "toward developing their own scientific experiments — something that’s relevant to a real-world problem. So, at the end of the day, they can leave and say, 'Yeah, I understand why I did that, and I got to think critically, and my research could actually be part of [solving] a real problem.'"
Much of Schall’s approach goes back to her own graduate-school teaching days.
"One of my favorite things was to mentor other students, help them with their projects or help them get experience, teach them what it takes to get out and survive in the real world," she said. "Not to just make sure they studied, but to give them a leg up when they had job applications out, to give them career experience."