Longtime RiverWatch volunteer raises family of biologists

John Griffis and his three children work together to get stream samples for the RiverWatch program.

A RiverWatch volunteer citizen scientist since 1998, Professor John Griffis, father of RiverWatch Technician Hannah-Beth Griffis, helped his children get their feet wet in biological studies in the creeks of the Fox and Des Plaines rivers’ watershed in northern Illinois.

Griffis, a retired professor, still fills his time as an adjunct at Joliet Junior College and is still monitoring two sites along Lily Cache Creek as part of the RiverWatch program. He first learned of the program through a co-worker.

“A colleague was planning to train for the RiverWatch program and told me about it,” Griffis said. “I liked the idea of monitoring for pollution levels. I thought that was an important thing that we should be doing and I had an interest in getting involved with research.”

Monitoring trips for the RiverWatch program became a family activity for Griffis and his children.  

“My kids have always been involved with helping out with my RiverWatch sampling and I think that was an important part of our father and child relationships,” he said. “It probably played a role in all three of them becoming interested in biology. They helped in data collection, things like stream velocity, also picking bugs out. They all probably started helping around age 10 or 11.”

All three of John’s children have gone on to achieve advanced degrees in biology. 

“I began helping him when I was in middle school,” Hannah-Beth Griffis said. “I started helping him just by pointing out macroinvertebrates in his samples. When I was old enough, I began to go out into the field and help him collect stream samples.”

In jest, John’s children like to claim their father “pushed” them into biology careers. 

“It wasn’t my intent at all for them to necessarily go into biology,” he said. “It’s pretty impressive. I’m glad they enjoyed it. They used to come to JJC with me and look at all the specimens, so I guess it did have a big impact on them.”

Hannah recalls how, as a child, her father impressed her with his knowledge. 

“When we went to any place that involved hiking through nature, my dad would just start naming all the plants and animals,” she said. “I realize he was probably just guessing on some things, but I didn’t know that. As a young child, I felt like my dad knew everything.”

John was just as impressed with his children.

“They were always so sharp with their observations,” he said. “Sometimes when we were out, they would pick out things that I just didn’t see at all. They’ve always had that knack and that impressed me.”

Over the years, John has been able to integrate the work he’s done with the RiverWatch program with his teaching at JJC. 

“We have been utilizing RiverWatch techniques at JJC in an undergraduate research course, which has led to students presenting and publishing their research findings at the National Conferences of Undergraduate Research,” he said. “We like to look at how stream quality varies using different sampling techniques and within different seasons/time of year. We have also looked at comparisons between sites within the same creek that differ in riparian characteristics. My students and I have been published in the RiverWatch Newsletter a few times.”

To learn more about the RiverWatch program, visit www.ngrrec.org/Riverwatch.

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