As college students settle back into their ivy-covered campuses across Pennsylvania for the fall semester, former DEP intern Brittany Sprout has begun pursuit of a new dream inspired by her transformative experience working for the agency.
As a rising senior biology major at Lock Haven University, Sprout had no aquatic coursework or prior related experience when she began her summer internship in DEP’s North-central Regional Office (NCRO) in Williamsport in May 2017. But once she began processing and subsampling macroinvertebrate samples in the NCRO lab, Sprout developed an interest, enthusiasm, and skill set that led her to enroll in graduate school with plans to pursue a career in aquatic biology.
“I found a true passion for identifying aquatic insects, which is a surprise I wasn’t expecting,” said Sprout. “I also realized exactly why these insects are so important.”
During her paid DEP internship, Sprout participated in a wide range of hands-on tasks in the field and in the lab, including stream and lake surveys, habitat assessments, electrofishing surveys, processing fish tissue samples, taxonomically identifying macroinvertebrate samples, and calculating biological metrics and Index of Biotic Integrity (IBI) scores—all essential steps in the highly technical process required for DEP to perform its duties to assess and protect the region’s waterways. Her work was supervised by two aquatic biologists in NCRO’s Clean Water Program: Dave Rebuck and Steve Means.
Sprout remembers the exact day she caught the macroinvertebrate bug. “I was out in Penns Creek for my first bug collection in the field with Dave Rebuck,” she said. “I remember collecting them in my net, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the lab to subsample them and pick them out. I was actually excited to stare at bugs for hours! In the lab, I lost track of time and didn’t want to leave at the end of the day until I knew what those bugs were.”
Sprout became a voracious learner, rapidly achieving proficiency in the processing and taxonomic identification of aquatic macroinvertebrate samples. She developed a skill level that Rebuck says is “rarely achieved” by student interns. She used a stereomicroscope to take high-quality digital photos and assembled them into a library of reference images for use by the NCRO staff. By the end of the summer, Sprout helped the staff to process the entire inventory of macroinvertebrate samples in NCRO’s laboratory.
“The progress she made from the start to the end of her internship and the help she provided us was truly remarkable,” said Rebuck. “Brittany’s experience is an excellent example of how much our DEP internship program can benefit both the interns and the department, when students take full advantage of real-world learning opportunities and DEP staff provide the appropriate teaching, training, guidance, and support.”
“I gained an incredible amount of knowledge and experience,” said Sprout. “Before I came to DEP, I had no knowledge of aquatic insects or how to sample them. I didn’t know how to collect macroinvertebrate samples or even identify them with their common names or order. Now, I can sit down with 200 random bugs and tell you their genus within a few hours.”
After completing her summer internship, Sprout returned to work for additional time during the following winter break, when she helped train new interns to continue her work.
“Most impressive were the leadership skills Brittany demonstrated while teaching and training new student interns working in the Clean Water Program,” said Rebuck. “Brittany made our jobs easier with all the support she provided to improve the efficiency and productivity of our work efforts, which allowed us to accomplish program objectives and goals.”
Her life-changing DEP internship experience led Sprout to work as the lead macroinvertebrate taxonomist on a joint research project between Lock Haven University and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission during her final undergraduate semester in Spring 2018.
Recently, Sprout took the biggest step toward her new dream of becoming an aquatic biologist by beginning study at the University of Denver in a Master of Science program in Ecology and Evolution. Her graduate research will focus on collecting aquatic insects throughout the Rocky Mountains to study the impacts of high altitude environments on benthic macroinvertebrates.
“My experiences at DEP are definitely the reason I have made it this far,” said Sprout. “Aside from the skills and practical experience I gained during my internship, I also gained professionalism. I also realized what I did and didn’t like about the job I was doing and will remember that for the future when I begin my career after school.”
Beyond her exemplary service to DEP, Brittany Sprout will also be remembered for a lasting personal gesture: Painting a canvas portrait of a mayfly for the NCRO lab.
Visit the DEP website to learn more about the DEP Internship Program and find out how talented students can apply.