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September 15, 2016

Making Pitt Work

Chris Davis, left, and Nick Mihailoff in the stockroom at Pitt’s Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology in Linesville.

Chris Davis, left, and Nick Mihailoff in the stockroom at Pitt’s Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology in Linesville.


Pitt’s senior administration grabs most of the headlines. The faculty here get noticed when they bring in research dollars, win teaching awards or publish in their fields.

But behind the scenes, University staff, some 7,000 strong across five campuses, often toil in jobs ranging from the mundane to the esoteric.

From mailroom workers to data entry specialists, costume designers to biosafety officers, photographers to accountants, staff at Pitt perform tasks great and small, year-in and year-out, for the greater good of the University.

This is one in an occasional series profiling University staff, providing a glimpse of some of the less recognized employees whose primary business is making Pitt work.



The original PLE facility sits at the edge of Pymatuning Lake.

The original PLE facility sits at the edge of Pymatuning Lake.

“One of the most important things we need are pictures of what we do,” said Chris Davis, Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology’s assistant director.

Pitt’s sprawling PLE facility in tiny Linesville, a two-hour drive north of the Pittsburgh campus, is “bursting at the seams,” he said, with 160 college students in its dorms each summer for a dozen classes; K-12 students attending PLE environmental programs from surrounding school districts the rest of the year; and faculty researchers from across the country spending decades conducting seasonal environmental studies from its cabins.

But Davis still understands the importance of taking pictures of PLE in action to let prospective students know what this Pitt facility is all about. He often will accompany classes to photograph students setting turtle traps in the swamp, doing bug counts and other work of fellow limnologists — people who study inland waterways.

PLE was founded as a Pitt biological field station at Presque Isle on Lake Erie in 1926, and is administered by the Department of Biological Sciences in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. In 1949, PLE was moved to Pymatuning State Park.

Today the central PLE site, called Sanctuary Lake for its state-protected waters, houses the main lab buildings, as well as classrooms and administrative and maintenance offices.

Chris Davis, left, watches students don their waders before setting out to collect specimens.

Chris Davis, left, watches students don their waders before setting out to collect specimens.

Across this end of the lake, on more state land, is PLE’s housing site, begun in the 1960s, with dorms for 60 students and a half-dozen cabins for the PLE director and visiting university researchers.

Farther down the road that crosses the lake’s spillway — where tourists famously throw bread to the carp and ducks, a practice Davis deplores as ruinous to the lake’s biology in that area — is PLE’s Donald S. Wood Field Lab. Its 134 acres, where much of the facility’s aquatic research is done, were added in 2000. There are other multi-acre parcels at PLE with woods and wetlands used as additional study sites.

Keeping PLE running means that Davis’ job ranges across the entire PLE grounds. On one day late this summer, for instance, he stood outside the administrative building making sure a half-dozen local university students successfully donned their chest waders for their Field Techniques in Ecology and Conservation class. This class was being taught by an Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor; Pitt has an agreement that invites many local universities to conduct classes at PLE, in effect creating new class offerings for Pitt students at the same time.

These Field Techniques students had used that morning to pitch their research proposals; now they were headed to PLE beaver ponds, toting dissolved oxygen meters, pH meters and nets to collect organisms, hoping to see what habitat the beavers were creating. Other classes this summer covered field entomology, the ecology of fungi, wildlife management and behavioral ecology.

Davis’ office is an extension of the PLE stock room, with shelves full of class equipment: everything from pipettes and beakers to trail cameras that can take photos remotely from the trees, and audio recorders for a frog-call project Davis is helping to develop for PLE’s school-year programs.

Davis, who joined PLE in 2013, handles everything from using the University’s purchasing system to getting researchers tools. He also can help them locate the best wetland or forest spot for their purpose, since he is an aquatic ecologist by trade.

Another key staff member making the many facets of PLE function is facilities manager Nick Mihailoff III, who has held this post since 1999. Mihailoff handles all PLE repairs and refurbishments with his two-man facilities and maintenance crew. Earlier this summer he and his team managed, just before the start of classes, to renovate the two 30-person dorms: They reconfigured the shower to create changing spaces in front, and modified eight-person rooms into cozier four-person spaces.

Mihailoff also is kept busy maintaining the Woods Lab site, mowing its fields every three or so years so they are maintained in an early stage of growth. In one of those fields is a greenhouse-like metal frame, used recently to house a butterfly study. Mihailoff and Davis recalled ordering mesh to put over the structure, at the researcher’s behest, then finding every insect had folded its wings and made it through the tiny holes the morning after they were placed inside.

“Things like that happen at field stations everywhere,” Davis said.

Here and throughout the PLE site, Mihailoff is responsible for rototilling the land for plantings, plowing snow to maintain access to the site and delivering equipment to experiment locations, including loads of lumber.

PLE has its own well and small-flow sewer treatment plant, which has forced Mihailoff to get state licensures as a sewer operator. Soon he will be a licensed pesticide applicator as well, as part of his grounds maintenance duties.

Mihailoff recalled the state of PLE when he interviewed for his job. Laboratory 13, for instance, is today a small but modern lab clad in wood siding that recently housed a wasp experiment by a Pitt graduate student. This experiment, now moved outdoors, is testing the influence of insect personalities — aggression or cooperation, for instance — on the health and evolution of their colonies.

When Mihailoff first saw Lab 13, it was scheduled to be remodeled. Considering its condition on first sight, he said, “I thought the best thing to do with this building would be to bulldoze it down.” Instead, his first job was to renovate it “on a shoestring.” To control costs, PLE often uses surplus equipment from Pitt campuses, he said.

Even Laboratory 12 next door, completed two years ago with a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, was built with castoff lab tables from the Titusville campus and cabinetry from Oakland. This molecular/microbial lab is much larger than Lab 13, at 3,600 square feet. Joined to two older labs, it houses machinery used by PLE director Cori Richards-Zawacki to detect fungal pathogens in frogs, plus other ultra-modern research equipment. The older laboratories down the hall have isolation chambers and other equipment to conduct studies with birds and smaller invertebrates.

PLE’s original lab, built for botany in 1954, also has been renovated by Mihailoff and his crew. Called the Lakeside Lab, it abuts Pymatuning Lake and has been refitted as the classroom for initial class sessions during each four-week summer class. Specimen jars, once relegated to the basement, now sit on shelves at the front of the class, filled with fish, snakes and frogs. In one, dated Aug. 26, 1955, float small striped fish identified only by their scientific name in an almost readable scrawl; another dates back to 1948.

In the basement are three new large growth chambers for creating controlled environments to evaluate how plants react to specific atmospheric changes such as light, temperature, CO2 levels or humidity.

In 2012, Mihailoff oversaw the remodeling of PLE’s kitchen, which now shines with silver cookware, and its dining hall, which hosts seminars when not in use by summer students and visiting professors.

Davis oversees and Mihailoff helps maintain such large-scale PLE projects as a five-university national experiment on the effect of climate change on frogs, as harbinger species signaling potentially wider impacts of global warming.

At the Woods Lab site, 20 or so cattle tanks filled with pond water sit beside a barn-like lab building. Inside the tanks swim about 400 leopard frog tadpoles, their environments being made to dry at varying levels to simulate the effects of climate change on habitats. Inside the lab, the mature frogs are tested by a Pitt PhD student and a postdoc, as well as students from other universities who work with PLE faculty, to determine the frogs’ amino acid levels. These researchers hope to gauge the frogs’ immunity to disease after living in various conditions.


When another set of students returned from their class expedition carrying turtle nets, Davis noticed that one student was soaked, despite his size 13 chest waders — it must have developed a hole.

“Guess what, Nick, we’re down to zero 13s,” Davis called, tossing the damaged equipment aside. Time to reorder.

Recent student surveys, Davis said, show that PLE’s efforts at publicizing its capabilities and recent renovations have paid off in heightened student satisfaction rates and increased interest in PLE programs. The pair hopes PLE soon will be able to build a third dormitory.

“The first, biggest complaint from the students is that the Internet stinks here, because we are out in the sticks,” Davis said. PLE is applying for an NSF grant to rectify that condition as well.

“We’re constantly trying to improve our facility,” Davis said. “What are the next things people want to have improved and we’ll work on it.”

“We like to call ourselves Team PLE,” Mihailoff said, “and it’s a pretty good team, I think.”

—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 2

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