Campus News Faculty Spotlight

Assistant professor asks important environmental questions

Krista Capps searches through leaf-litter for macro-invertebrates in Tanyard Creek. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Krista Capps studies the impact of aging water infrastructures, land use changes

Krista Capps can point to the exact moment when she became a stream ecologist.

“As an undergraduate, I majored in biology and political science, and I thought I was going to be an environmental lawyer,” she said. “And then I took a field class on world religions in India, and a river trip on the Ganges changed everything. Afterwards, I knew I wanted to work with fresh water for the rest of my life.”

Capps, who is now an assistant professor in the Odum School of Ecology with a joint appointment at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, found herself intrigued by the diversity of uses the river supported, from spirituality and religion to basic biological functions. She also wanted to understand how to balance all those competing needs.

“It was evident that different stakeholders were using the river in different ways, and that experience made me reflect on similar things in the U.S.,” she said. “I realized that I needed to learn more about other people’s perspectives on the environment.”

That realization has informed her career ever since. After serving in the Peace Corps, where she worked on natural resource management in Honduras, she completed her doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, then held a postdoctoral position in sustainability science at the University of Maine before joining the faculty at UGA in 2015.

Capps and her lab group study how human activities affect freshwater ecosystems, with active research programs in Athens, Atlanta, across the U.S., southern Mexico and northern India. Much of her current work focuses on the impacts of aging water infrastructure and land use changes on water quality and the plant and animal communities in rivers and streams.

Projects include a large collaborative study of five major U.S. metropolitan areas, comparing how different types of urban development affect water quality. She is asking similar questions in the Usumacinta River system in southern Mexico, exploring the impacts of urbanization, palm oil cultivation and potential dam construction. Both studies are funded by grants from the National Science Foundation.

Capps said that Georgia is a great place to be tackling these challenges.

“Challenges with freshwater resource management are found everywhere and can only be addressed equitably through interdisciplinary research and active collaboration with communities. With research centers such as the River Basin Center and Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems, it’s easy to find colleagues who are interested in collaborating to address these really difficult questions,” she said. “The Odum School of Ecology has been an epicenter for the study of freshwater ecology for a very long time, and SREL also shares this long history. Being lucky enough to work at places that you’ve read about for years and have had such a fundamental impact on your field of study … it is an incredible experience.”

Capps is also passionate about teaching. She has been a Lilly Teaching Fellow, a Service-Learning Fellow, and will participate in the Active Learning Summer Institute in 2022.

From left, Krista Capps, doctoral student Anuja Mital, visiting scholar Shou Chen and doctoral student Denzell Cross collect samples in a stream on campus as part of a larger effort to study the impact of urbanization in streams in the state of Georgia. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

One of her favorite classes is Ecology 1000, a course for non-science majors. Her goal is to make ecology and environmental science relevant to students in what may be the last science class many of them ever take.

“I strive to highlight the links that exist between economic and social well-being and the environment,” she said. “There are very real, tangible ways that the state of the environment is impacting human health and well-being, so it’s an exciting time to be teaching this class. It is one the best parts of my job.”

Besides research and teaching, Capps is involved a variety of outreach activities at UGA and through scientific societies and organizations.

“Much of my service has been focused on trying to bring diverse perspectives to the table,” she said. “And with the stresses human populations are putting on freshwater systems, having a diversity of voices in decision-making is exceptionally important to support sustainable and equitable resource management.”

Capps has been active in the Society for Freshwater Science Instars program since 2011, which aims to increase the recruitment and retention of scholars from historically marginalized communities into the field of freshwater science. She has also served as a mentor in the Ecological Society of America’s Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability program. She initiated the Odum School’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee in 2016, and has just been elected to the board of Diversity Joint Venture for Careers in Conservation, an organization devoted to enhancing diversity and representation in conservation organizations nation-wide.

For Capps, all these aspects of her career are inextricably interwoven, and they can all be traced back to that day in a boat on the Ganges River.

“To succeed in protecting ecosystems services for future generations, conservation programs need to embrace conflicting needs of diverse groups of people and acknowledge that we all have high stakes in the governance of natural resources like water,” she said.