Reflections From the Field

Reflections From the Field

Bethany Williams

As I’m wrapping up the final months of my PhD (wow!), I’ve been feeling very sentimental about the three summers I spent in the field. Lake Nabugabo, Uganda was my home for almost five months across 2018, 2019, and 2022. I spent hours by the swamps and rivers, and cruising across the lake catching my favorite haplochromine cichlid,  Pseudocrenilabrus multicolor. This amazing fish is unperturbed by extreme environmental conditions like severe hypoxia and is found across the Nile River basin. P. multicolor was the superstar of my dissertation research on the effects of multiple stressors on reproductive physiology and behavior. Now the science may be what takes us to the field, but I have to admit, the people are what made it fun!

When I look back at my time in Uganda, I will remember the science, the safaris, and the snake that almost fell on my head (true story). But I will also remember the people I worked with over my three field seasons there.  Some of my favorite memories are eating dinner together under the light of the stars and the Milky Way—sunset comes early at the equator. At those dinners, we would chat, watch movies, and get caught up on the day’s vervet gossip. Those monkeys are pretty cute, but one stole a chapati out of my hand in 2018, so I still have my reservations on them (never forgive, never forget). The 2022 summer field crew must hold world records for the longest game of pool and the number of goats chased out of a field station. In the months I spent on station, we celebrated birthdays, did yoga in front of the lake (to the alarm of the vervets), ate our weight in chapatis and rice, went for swims in the lake, walked through the village, and generally lived a life that few  people get to experience.

The opportunity to do research in a foreign country, let alone a region of the world you have always dreamed of visiting, is an incredible privilege. If I have learned anything during my PhD, it is that I’ve been incredibly lucky to conduct my research in Uganda. The local field assistants kept us safe, taught us about the lake, the language, and the culture. They pointed out which ants would bite and which catfish had venomous spines. While waiting on our minnow traps, we swapped stories and shared snacks (ginger biscuits, g-nuts, fresh jackfruit, and sugar cane come to mind). We talked about music: Carrie Underwood and Justin Bieber were both surprise hits among the field assistants. They made our work possible. To put is simply: Mutebi, Kiberu, Sseggoya, and Geoffrey—Mwebale nnyo (“Thank you”).

Now the theme of this blog post is nostalgia, but it would be wrong to not at least give a mention to the tough parts. A lack of running water, refrigeration, and reliable electricity combined with long days, homesickness, scary insects, venomous snakes, and navigating language and cultural barriers can be exhausting. Safety first, science second! We have to take the good with the bad, but at least in the case of field work, there is plenty of good to go around!

It is a rare thing to realize how lucky you are in the moment. But that is what my experience doing field work in Uganda gave me. It was in the mornings on station when I would watch the sun rise over the lake, a cup of tea in my hand, while monkeys played quietly around me. The moments in the field when we would find a chameleon or a frog and suddenly become kids again. The mornings in the village when I would go for a run and suddenly be in a race with giggling children on their way to school. The moment on safari when the driver stops alongside a lion. Teeth suddenly look so much larger and the safari van so much flimsier. You realize the world is more beautiful and dangerous and precious than you ever imagined. I could go on, but you get the idea…

So, whatever you do, wherever you go, have a sense of humor. If you’re doing field work in a foreign country, children will probably laugh at you (and you’ll probably deserve it). Have back up plans for when things don’t work. Be safe. And most importantly, enjoy yourself! One day before you know it, you’ll be like me, back in the lab, but wishing you were in the field.

Meet our new Master’s Student – Victoria Drumm

My name is Victoria Drumm and I’m happy to introduce myself as the Gray Lab’s newest master’s student! I spent last semester familiarizing myself with the native fishes of Ohio in Dr. Gray’s Taxonomy and Behavior of Fishes class (highly recommend!), and am currently in the preparatory stages of my research exploring the impacts of intermittent artificial lighting at night (ALAN) on freshwater fishes.

Intermittent ALAN has attracted far less research attention than ALAN of continuous intensity, but represents the type of illumination emitted by passing road vehicles and other mobile light sources. This spring I’ll begin by studying how intermittent and continuous ALAN affect the foraging and antipredator behavior of Bluegill Sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus) in conjunction with the presence or absence of their predators: Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides). I hope to determine how different patterns of ALAN exposure act on the trade-off between foraging and predator avoidance to better understand, and ideally mitigate, the ecological impacts of ALAN produced by roadways. Later in the year, I’ll also be conducting a complementary field study assessing how different intensities and patterns of roadway ALAN alter fish assemblages in rural streams, where, in the absence of other major infrastructural development, roadways may be a particularly significant source of light pollution. Very excited to get started on all of this in the coming months, and to share more of my progress going forward. Watch this space!

Looking down a fish ladder

I arrived at OSU from Connecticut, where I spent several seasons as a field assistant with the Diadromous Inland Fisheries Program of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). This program seeks to monitor and restore diadromous fish species, and we most frequently worked with Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus), American Shad (Alosa sapidissima), American Eel (Anguilla rostrata), Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar), and Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus).



Glass (juvenile) American Eels

While a couple of those names may strike fear into the hearts of Midwesterners, in their native ranges these species have undergone population declines due to a number of anthropogenic factors, with in-stream barriers high on the list. My position with DEEP involved monitoring fish ladders at dams throughout the state, transplanting fish from plentiful “donor” runs into streams whose runs we’d like to improve, and much more! It was an amazing, challenging experience that took me to some absolutely beautiful places, and wholeheartedly confirmed my desire to pursue a career in fisheries conservation. Here are some photos of our charming focal species!



Alewives trapped overnight at a fish ladder (only kept at this density for a few minutes to facilitate netting)
Alewives being stocked out to bolster a struggling run









Sea Lamprey and American Shad (background)
Down-migrating Silver (sexually mature) American Eel








Slowly returning to “normal”

The last two years have been challenging for everyone and I am so proud of how our lab has risen to those challenges. We are sloooooowly getting back to “normal” this summer with fieldwork and fish. Bethany and Jai are in Uganda, Noel is at Stone Lab, and I’m still sitting in my basement office trying to keep it all together.

We’ll be trying to post more research news from now on so stay tuned!

Chelsey wins award!

Congratulations to Ph.D. student Chelsey Nieman on winning the Janice Lee Fenske Memorial Award for Outstanding Students! Also, a big congrats to masters student Tiffany Atkinson on being a finalist for the award as well! Keep up being outstanding students in fisheries, ladies!

2018 Highlights!

A list of every lab members 2018 highlight!

Tiffany: I completely finished collecting data for my Master’s thesis.

Rylie: My 2018 highlight is that I decided to start my own Research with Distinction project with the Gray Lab this year.

Richard: I secured my first publication looking at differences in behavioral responses between fish with different parental origin, and successfully defended my master’s thesis to graduate with a MS.

Bethany: Skipped my Master’s graduation ceremony and that same day hopped on a plane for Uganda to start my Ph.D.!

Chelsey: I published two papers on the effects of elevated turbidity on visual ecology of Lake Erie fish and also taught my very first aquatic ecology course.

Brynne: I furthered my passion for youth outreach and education by helping teach aquatic ecology to a variety of school groups.

Taylor: Being fortunate enough to have the opportunity to live in Columbus for the summer where I developed and carried out my first independent research project looking into sexual behavior in African cichlids.

Jeremy: I started my Master’s program at Ohio State University and completed my first field season and semester of course work.

Andy: I was fortunate enough to spend my summer studying how the vision of adult Walleye is effected by increasing turbidity concentrations on Lake Erie, with results indicating that algae may disrupt vision at a much lower level than suspended sediment.


Can’t wait to see what new publications, students and research will happen in 2019! Big things coming from the Gray Lab!

New Publication!

Congrats to our very own Chelsey Nieman and Suzanne Gray on their recent publication in The Journal of Fish Biology! Check out their paper on the effects of algal blooms and sediment plumes on the visual performance of Emerald Shiner and Walleye!

Fall Update!

Although the summer field season has come to a close, The Gray Lab is in full swing with lab work! Tiffany has begun swim performance trials on her cichlids reared under turbid and clear conditions. Richard, Bethany, and Chelsey have begun work on MSP (microspectrophotometry), looking at the cones of African Cichlid fish eyes. Chelsey is also diligently writing as well as looking at historic Emerald Shiners dating back to the 1920’s. Shib and Jeremy are busy with classes and being Teaching Assistants! Taylor’s undergraduate project has been going great, she even has a few brooders in her turbid and clear tanks! Stay tuned for updates happening this fall and check out our Twitter!

New Gray Lab Publication!

We are excited to finally get to announce our newest lab publication, “Visual detection thresholds in two trophically distinct fishes are compromised in algal compared to sedimentary turbidity” in Conservation Physiology!

Over the past few summers, as part of my Ph.D. research, I have had the opportunity to work with undergraduates Andy Oppliger and Caroline McElwain on a project focusing on the visual sensitivity, or ability to determine contrast, of Lake Erie fishes. We were able to utilize the optokinetic response, or the innate response of fishes to follow a moving stimulus, to determine at what level of turbidity at which fish can no longer see. One of our goals was to determine the differences between the effects of sedimentary and algal turbidity on the visual sensitivity of Emerald Shiner and Walleye. We found that visual detection thresholds, or the point at which the fish can no longer see, were significantly lower in algal turbidity compared to sedimentary turbidity for both Walleye and Emerald Shiner.

Read the full article here:


Chelsey Nieman


Jeremy Evans- Ponds Project

This summer was the start of a new project in the Gray Lab. I am the Graduate student heading up this research and so far, I have been assisted by Christian Bower, Chris McMahon, Taylor Hrabak and Brynne Drohan. Our fieldwork consists of monitoring water quality, macroinvertebrate community structure, and the general condition of fish populations across a gradient of managed and unmanaged ponds. We spent our summer collecting data and water samples in the field for one week and then running tests on the water samples in the lab the following week. The data we collected this summer will provide a solid baseline for further studies looking at the effects of pond management on the resident fish populations.