PITTSBURGH – Some people love cats. Some love dogs. But Kristi Dobra loves mussels.
She doesn’t just love sea mussels steamed in a big pot, served on a platter with fries, which she washes down with a Belgian beer from her favorite café.
Dobra loves studying freshwater mussels, specifically those found in the Ohio River watershed, as part of her doctorate research.
“Mussels are just really fascinating, bizarre creatures,” Dobra said, speaking about the creature with mesmerizing interest as if talking about her favorite pet.
For example, freshwater mussels cannot move on their own. They rely on fish to carry and disperse the mussels’ offspring throughout the river. To do this, they lure fish close to them by mimicking the fish’s prey. When the fish goes in for a snack, the mussel sprays hundreds of baby larvae, called glochidia, which attach to the fish’s gills.
The glochidia are parasitic, but they do not harm their host. They feed on the fish’s bloodstream for a few weeks until they become juvenile mussels and fall off.
“Then they burrow into the sediment, and they stay there forever,” Dobra said.
Well, not exactly forever, but it can seem like an eternity for a creature living several decades without the ability to move independently. Mussels are natural water filters, improving the water quality and providing benefits to other species within their ecosystem.
“They may seem kind of boring, like some sort of slimy rock at the bottom of a river that nobody notices, but they do really crazy things,” said Dobra, who is an environmental resource specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District.
Dobra’s environmental expertise helps the corps account for environmental laws whenever planning future projects. For example, when the Pittsburgh District dredges rivers to maintain a channel deep enough for commercial navigation, it must account for mussels buried in the sediment.
“The diversity of species in our district is amazing. The Ohio River is part of the Mississippi Valley, which has a spectacularly diverse freshwater mussel fauna, richer than anywhere else on the planet,” Dobra said.
However, many mussel species are threatened or endangered in this region, and human development can cause unintended harm.
The environmental team is critical to each phase of a project to help move it forward without unexpected consequences or costs, Dobra said. The environmental section falls under the planning branch, which studies the feasibility of each project to ensure it is worth the taxpayer dollar and it abides by environmental laws.
The team looks at each project with a broad view, not just how a construction changes an area now, but well into the future. They look at years down the road and miles downstream to ensure that whatever project occurs at one area does not have adverse effects elsewhere.
Besides working for the Army Corps, Dobra has found a way to flex her love for mussels into a doctoral degree thanks to a scholarship program funded by the Department of Defense.
“It’s a great program,” Dobra said. “Being able to do this Ph.D. as part of my job is awesome.”
The Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation, or SMART scholarship, has been paying for Dobra’s tuition and half of her salary. Instead of cramming 20 hours of research in the evenings after work, Dobra can split her time between the office and the research lab at the University of Pittsburgh throughout the week while getting paid as a full-time employee.
“It’s a great recruitment and retention opportunity. You get free school, and they pay you while you go,” she said.
The Department of Defense funds the SMART program to provide education and workforce development opportunities for students pursuing science, technology, engineering, or math degrees. So far, the program has awarded more than 3,800 scholarships at more than 400 universities, from bachelor’s up to doctoral degrees.
“Kristi is brilliant,” said Marc Glowczewski, the planning branch chief for the Pittsburgh District, who expressed that Dobra is well deserving of the scholarship.
“She is going to end up with a doctorate and a network of connections, which will expand our network and partnerships as well,” he said.
The scholarship pays full tuition to any U.S.-accredited college or university and an annual stipend between $30,000 and $46,000, depending on the degree level. Since the Army Corps of Engineers already employs Dobra while studying for her Ph.D., she agreed to continue working for the DoD for at least the same number of years it takes to complete her degree.
“It is a competitive scholarship. The first year I applied, I didn’t get it. I had to apply again the next year and then luckily got in,” Dobra said.
The doctorate scholarship will cover up to five years, but Dobra plans on finishing in four. That means prolonged periods when she dons a lab coat and fixes her eyes on a mussel shell through a microscope rather than work on other planning requirements for her district job.
“Having a supervisor who supports you is very important. This is not just a quick one-year thing. It’s a long-term investment,” Dobra said.
From a narrow standpoint, allowing employees to pursue a Ph.D. program during the workweek does not have an immediate benefit. It means time away from the office, which means more work for the rest of the team. But the Army Corps is an organization that believes in long-term development for its employees and their careers.
“Kristi is fabulous,” said Bobbi Jo McClain, Dobra’s supervisor, and chief of the Environmental and Cultural Resources Section. “We wanted to support her in whatever she needed. She is excited about her work, and we didn’t have anyone who specialized in mussels, which are becoming more and more of a concern in all our projects.”
For Dobra’s supervisors, supporting her decision to conduct research was an easy one.
“In my experience, supported employees are productive employees. They’re happy employees who remain passionate about the work they do,” Glowczewski said.
Dobra sets an example of excellence for others, Glowczewski said. If other employees see Dobra excel and benefit from the SMART scholarship, he said they will hopefully pursue programs or degrees that boost their own career passions as well.
“We invest in our employees to do great things, which hopefully attracts more great employees to work for us,” Glowczewski said.
Additionally, Dobra’s studies at Pitt have opened opportunities with university department chairs, which can lead to other waterways collaborations and projects to help different watersheds throughout the Pittsburgh District, Glowczewski said.
“I haven’t found a negative reason yet to support our employees to further their career goals or education,” he said.
Once Dobra completes her degree and defends her dissertation, she plans on continuing research for the district’s watershed. She would love to continue her career in Pittsburgh and collaborate more with the Engineer Research and Development Center, which has several labs nationwide to develop engineering solutions for the Army Corps.
Unlike the mussels she studies, which burrow themselves in one place for the rest of their lives, Dobra has a lot of career mobility in her future thanks to the SMART scholarship. Despite focusing so much on the bottom of the river, “The sky’s the limit for Kristi,” Glowczewski said of her potential.
The application window for a SMART scholarship is between Aug. 1 and Dec. 1 each year. STEM students interested in applying for a scholarship can find more information here: https://dodstem.us/participate/smart