Brooke Siren’s alarm clock (the “flowing water” sound specifically chosen so that she can’t ignore it or she’ll pee the bed) goes off every morning precisely at 5 a.m. Brooke is an outdoorsy type of gal—as were her parents, hence the name—and all her life she knew she wanted to do something that involved nature, particularly water. Now, Brooke didn’t grow up on one of the coasts so she didn’t have a childhood filled with beach and sea excursions; no, she grew up right here in Cleveland, Ohio, and spent childhood summers on Lake Erie, boating, catching frogs, and developing a love for all things lake.
But her beloved Lake Erie didn’t used to be so idyllic. Just as a coincidence, Brooke was born June 22, 1969, the day the Cuyahoga River—the river that flows through Cleveland and into Lake Erie—caught fire. At one time the Cuyahoga (meaning “crooked river” and dubbed that by the Indians living there) was one of the most polluted rivers in the U.S. In fact, in fact the river caught on fire (just think about that for a moment: the river caught fire—it boggles the mind) at least 12 times prior to Brooke’s parents’ happiest day. Later, in August of that year, Time Magazine reported the Cuyahoga to be “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. ‘Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,’ Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. ‘He decays.’”
The Cuyahoga River has been the source of songs by Randy Newman (Burn On) and R.E.M. (Cuyahoga) and even makes an appearance in a Simpsons’ episode called Lemon of Troy. It’s a famous river, but not in a good way, prior to 1969.
But after that things changed. The Cuyahoga (along with other polluted rivers) spurred the creation of the EPA, which worked to clean up America’s polluted waterways (among other duties). In a few years, fish returned, the water cleared up and the people of Ohio stopped referring to Cleveland as “The Mistake on the Lake” (the lake being Lake Erie). By the time Brooke was 9 or 10, her family started its yearly summer tradition of getting together on Lake Erie, the memories being one of the very reasons Brooke got interested in limnology as opposed to, say, catering or mixed martial arts fighting.
A few months ago, the EPA hired Brooke on a contractual basis to keep a close watch on the Cuyahoga and the lake it spills into, Lake Erie. On this morning, Brooke knows it’s important to get to her river (she’s a very responsible girl and likes to think she’s taking these waters on for her children, her personal responsibilities) as early as possible to get a full picture of what’s going on there during this summer day. She also wants to collect samples every couple of hours or so to see what changes, what chemicals have increased or decreased, what animals come to drink, swim, play, make whoopee… (Brooke is very discreet when observing; she’s a limnologist known among the inhabitants of the Cuyahoga for her sense of decorum. She could have made a fine diplomat had she decided to go that route.)
So off Brooke sets with her waterproof waders, a dissecting pan and a few other tools to take her weekly samples of the formerly sludgy brown river.
She drives to the river, hops out of her Jeep, shows the park ranger her credentials and heads toward the part of the river that seems most accessible today. She puts on her hip waders, ties her hair back and wades in with her test tubes, gloves and her thermistor—a long, thin tool used to sense temperature changes using semiconductors—in her waterproof, many-layered, many-pocketed fanny pack.
Brooke uses the knowledge she gained in grad school and various internships to test (and retest) the samples she’s taken today, and writes up a quick report that she’ll work on later to put into longer form—probably deep into the night. Then she’ll hand it off to her EPA supervisor. Hopefully he’ll be able to take this data and use it to ensure life is continuing to come back to the Cuyahoga and that the algae blooms and pollutants are persistently finding its waters inhospitable.
Brooke knows she needs to think ahead; her contract with the EPA will expire in a few months. Brooke, being as bright as light glinting off Lake Erie, already has a job lined up: She was offered an associate professor position at Kent State University. Yep, she’s decided to take the limnologist’s plunge into academia, a risky move but one she’s excited about. Working toward tenure isn’t so much a goal as it is a future prospect; it’s the students Brooke is excited about. She loves to talk about what she does and can’t wait to share her knowledge, both in the classroom and in the field, in the abundance of lakes, rivers, and streams that Ohio has to offer.