Stream Dreams

Photo by Yelena Kisler – Watershed Technician Stephanie Stoughton spends a lot of her time on the job bent over like this, picking up rocks in area streams to check for critters. Doing this helps her to determine the water quality in a particular stream.Photo submitted – A very young Stephanie Stoughton is pictured with her grandfather by the Connoquenessing Creek headwaters on her family's property. The photograph is from an article on water health that ran in The Butler Eagle.
By: 
Yelena Kisler
Staff Writer

Stephanie Stoughton’s entire life has revolved around wildlife and ecosystems, so it’s no surprise that she brings a lot of passion to her job as watershed technician for the Elk County Conservation District.
At 26 years old, Stoughton is already highly qualified for the position, having earned her master’s degree under one of the country’s most prestigious water conservationists, Sally Entrekin, Ph.D. But her background growing up is what fosters her passion for the job.
Stoughton grew up on a 1,500-acre property in Chicora, which is in northern Butler county.
“It wasn’t a huge working farm, but we always had lots of critters – rabbits, goats, horses, ponies and donkeys.”
Growing up surrounded by nature and wildlife definitely fostered Stoughton’s passion for nature, and ultimately dictated her professional pursuits.
“I always tell my dad, (Lewis Stoughton), that I work in this field because of him,” she said. “He was always buying property and then just preserving it. And we would always go for ATV rides around the farm, or truck rides, always playing outside, and he was always taking me fishing on the farm. So he just did a lot to foster my love for ecosystems and keeping land the way you found it, or doing things to conserve or preserve it.”
After graduating from Chicora High School, Stoughton went to Penn State Behrend for her bachelor’s degree in biology.
“When I initially got into college, I thought I wanted to be a vet and then I kind of fell in love with ecology,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to find a really awesome mentor up there who studied aquatic ecology, (Professor Pam Silver, Ph.D.), so I got into aquatic ecology in undergraduate. I’m still in contact with her too. She’s kind of mentored me my entire life.”
“After undergrad, I knew there was gonna be tremendous pressure from my mom and dad to get a job right away,” Stoughton said.
So she got a temporary, seasonal position in Wyoming at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and with them, worked on river restoration.
“I got to see a river that had been damaged by the logging industry, and then I got to be there all summer and assist with the restoration of that river,” she said. “After that job, I realized that I wanted to always have a role in helping aquatic ecosystems. Everyone I worked with in Wyoming and everyone I worked with in Pennsylvania had master’s degrees, so I soon realized I would need a master’s degree to be competitive for those jobs.”
While still in Wyoming she found a position at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas. The advisor for the program was Sally Entrekin Ph.D. who is very well-known in the aquatic ecology field.
“She was researching how land use and how humans influence water quality – and that’s really what I was interested in,” said Stoughton.
“I didn’t really know where Arkansas was before I applied,” she said with a laugh. “I applied and I got into grad school there, so I moved to Arkansas, and I was (there) for three years.”
During that time she studied how urban land use and agricultural land use influenced a bayou ecosystem, which was much different from the waters in Pennsylvania she was used to.
“So I was suddenly in the swamps of Arkansas,” she said. “The first time I went out and explored the watershed I was studying, I put my waders on, and I took five steps into the wetland, and I saw a cottonmouth. I had never seen a cottonmouth in my life, and I love all animals, so I was really excited. I wanted to take a video on my phone to show my parents. I walked up to the cottonmouth, I was within about 15 feet of it, and taking a video. And on the video I’m saying ‘look mom and dad, look what I found, it’s a cottonmouth.’ And it curls up and it strikes at me in that instant, so there were some swear words on the video. I made that cottonmouth really unhappy. So that was my first realization – ‘we’re not in Pennsylvania anymore.’”
Fortunately, the cottonmouth didn’t actually reach Stoughton and she survived the experience unscathed, and undeterred. She said through her time there, she ended up seeing many cottonmouths, and none were as aggressive as that first encounter, so she got used to them. Now, back in Pennsylvania, she still has to remind herself that she doesn’t need to watch out for them in the waters.
The heat in Arkansas proved to be a little too much for Stoughton’s liking. “I got heat exhaustion once, and that was pretty scary. There’s no place like northern Arkansas, the Ozark Mountains, but... I really like Pennsylvania, I like having four seasons.”
After finishing graduate school, Stoughton was sure she wanted to be back closer to where she grew up. Fortuitously, the ECCD was looking for a Watershed Technician around the same time she began looking at job prospects.
“I stumbled upon this position online,” she said. “I’d always seen myself in a role like this, someone who just works to protect and conserve and restore water resources, and I said ‘that’s perfect for me, I have to apply.’”
She applied in the summer of 2017 and was on the job by September.
“It was like it was meant to be,” she said. “There are a lot of people that compete for jobs in my field, and a lot of people who want a job like this, so I feel very fortunate.”

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