Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

Eli Chen

Science Reporter

Eli Chen is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes to St. Louis after covering the eroding Delaware coast, bat-friendly wind turbine technology, mouse love songs and various science stories for Delaware Public Media/WDDE-FM. Before that, she corralled robots and citizen scientists for the World Science Festival in New York City and spent a brief stint booking guests for Science Friday’s live events in 2013. Eli grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where a mixture of teen angst, a love for Ray Bradbury novels and the growing awareness about climate change propelled her to become the science storyteller she is today. When not working, Eli enjoys a solid bike ride, collects classic disco, watches standup comedy and is often found cuddling other people’s dogs. She has a bachelor’s in environmental sustainability and creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has a master’s degree in journalism, with a focus on science reporting, from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

Ways to Connect

A stretch of LeBarque Creek near Pacific Oct. 2018
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

The Nature Conservancy is rebuilding eroded streambanks in Missouri to reduce sediment pollution, which is one of the largest sources of water contamination in the state.

Since the summer of 2017, conservationists have been working with environmental engineers to stabilize streambanks at LaBarque Creek near Pacific. They're also doing so along the Elk River in southwest Missouri, where sediments have polluted the watershed. Through bioengineering techniques, they repair the streams by using deep-rooted native plants, biodegradable coconut fibers and other natural materials, such as wood, to keep the banks from depositing sediments into the water.

George Smith, a retired biology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia
University of Missouri-Columbia

When retired biologist George Smith picked up the phone at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, he wasn’t expecting it to be the Swedish Academy.

“It’s kind of a common prank for your friends to put on a fake Swedish accent and tell you that you won,” Smith said. “I thought maybe it was a joke but the line was so scratchy and there was so much interference, I thought nah, it wasn’t one of my friends. They wouldn’t have such a bad connection.”

Through the phone call, Smith, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-Columbia, learned that he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing a method called phage display in the 1980s. Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria. Smith used them to create a tool that would help identify antibodies, molecules in the body that identify invading pathogens, that would be the most useful for binding to molecules that are associated with certain diseases.

A ruffed grouse
Missouri Department of Conservation

For the next three years, Missouri conservation officials are bringing 300 ruffed grouse into the state from Wisconsin in hopes of raising the native bird’s population.

The ruffed grouse is a stout-bodied, medium-sized bird with white, grey or brown feathers and mostly spends its time on the ground. In Missouri, the ruffed grouse lives mainly in the River Hills region, located in an east-central part of the state that covers Callaway, Montgomery and Warren counties. 

While the ruffed grouse have fairly healthy populations in the northern parts of the United States, its Missouri population has declined in recent years. In 2011, the state suspended the hunting season for the bird, in place since the 1980s.

The West Lake Landfill, in the distance, sits adjacent to the Bridgeton Landfill, right.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 12:10 p.m. Sept. 28 — The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized its plan to remove radioactive waste from the West Lake Landfill Superfund site.

The chosen solution will remove about 70 percent of the site’s radioactivity and dispose of the waste at an out-of-state facility. The $205 million plan is similar, though less expensive, to what officials proposed in February.

Bonne Terre resident Steven Anderson sits in a kayak in the Big River next to a beach covered in legacy mine waste.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

About 55 miles southwest of St. Louis, Steven Anderson — who owns an outfitter called Cherokee Landing in Bonne Terre — routinely takes his customers to St. Francois State Park.

To a trained observer like Anderson, the beach where he launches his kayak trips offers clear signs of lead contamination. Before taking off recently, he scooped up a handful of gravel.

“See these gray and black specks?” he said, pointing at the tiny dark rocks in his hand. “There’s a lot of heavy tailings on this beach.”

The tailings are discarded mine waste from the lead mining that long took place in St. Francois County. The Environmental Protection Agency has a plan to clean up the waste along the Big River, which runs through the heart of Missouri's Old Lead Belt.

A meeting at the Missouri Botanical Garden's Commerce Bank Education Center Sept. 19, 2018.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

As municipalities in the St. Louis region look for ways to continue single-stream recycling, a regional task force plans to educate residents on how to help sustain the services.

Since China imposed stricter standards in May on the amount of contamination allowed in mixed recyclables, processing companies have been forced to sell materials at a loss. That’s led Resource Management, a company that processes about 45 percent of residential single stream recycling in the St. Louis area, to suspend curbside recycling pickup on Nov. 1.

An illustration of pollution, 2017
Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed adding the former site of a refrigerator-valve manufacturing facility in Washington, Missouri, to its National Priorities List.

Superfund sites that are added to the National Priorities List are eligible for federal funding for cleanup. The former site of the Sporlan Valve Plant, operational from 1939 until 1968, used industrial chemical solvents to make refrigerator parts.

Harmful contaminants such as benzene and trichloroethylene — or TCE — remained in the soil and groundwater over several decades. Exposure to such chemicals can cause cancer and damage to multiple organs.

Lead-based paint
Mike Mozart | Flickr

The Quincy Housing Authority has received $1 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to remove lead from its residential properties.

Housing officials in Quincy, Illinois, about 135 north of St. Louis, aim to address properties built in 1942. Houses built before the 1978 federal ban on lead-based paint most likely contain traces of lead. The HUD funds will be used to hire a contractor to conduct testing and lead abatement for five properties, which contain a total of 254 units.

Researcher Mónica Carlsen-Krause and high school student Gabrielle McAuley in the Missouri Botanical Garden's Climatron, the garden's greenhouse that mimics a tropical rainforest.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

For the past year, a researcher at the Missouri Botanical Garden has been collecting samples from hundreds of plants in the garden. They’ll be preserved at the Smithsonian Institute, where scientists are collecting plants from around the world.

Scientists are discovering new plants across the globe, but about one out of five plants are at risk of becoming extinct, due to climate change, human development and other threats to the environment. The Smithsonian’s Global Genome Initiative aims to have samples from every plant species on the planet, so scientists can learn about them and use them to solve human and environmental problems.

A cornfield outside of Valmeyer, Illinois. Aug 31, 2018
Brian Heffernan | St. Louis Public Radio

Researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center want to learn how a changing climate could affect the fertility of corn and other major crops.

Scientists at the Danforth Center, Stanford University and the University of Delaware have received a $3.5-million grant from the National Science Foundation to take a closer look at anthers in maize plants. Anthers — the male reproductive part of the plant — generate pollen.

The Clarence Cannon Wildlife Refuge in Annada, Mo.
Randall Hyman

About 70 miles north of St. Louis, a serene, 3,750-acre area covered in prairie grasses, forests and wetlands serves as a crucial habitat for migratory birds.

The Clarence Cannon National Wildlife Refuge in Annada sits next to the Mississippi River, surrounded by farmland. Last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a $29-million project to improve wildlife habitats in the refuge.

The agencies aim to bring back historic flood cycles that support native plants. They provide food and habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Veolia's incinerator in Sauget, Ill.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

This story has been updated to include comments from the EPA.

The Environmental Protection Agency could loosen its requirement that an East St. Louis incinerator monitor its emissions for heavy metals that could be harmful to human health.

A nurse at St. Louis Children's Hospital attending to an infant that was born premature.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

In the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, doctors and nurses bustled in and out of rooms with small beds and brightly-colored construction paper taped to windows.

Four doctors stood with their wheeled computer desks outside the room of a premature baby boy who was admitted two weeks earlier. There was a lot to discuss, since the young patient has a hole in his heart, liver problems and multiple infections. They talked about what antibiotics he was on and noted the number of days the infant has been taking them.

An illustration of pollution, 2017
Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

Environmental and faith groups are calling for the Environmental Protection Agency to increase air monitoring around a hazardous waste incinerator in East St. Louis.

Cancer researcher Samuel Achilefu telling a story at the Story Collider podcast's live taping at the Ready Room in June 2018.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

The reason someone chooses to pursue science can be complicated. For Samuel Achilefu, a cancer researcher at the Washington University School of Medicine, his interest in science can be traced back to a traumatic childhood. At the Story Collider’s most recent live taping in St. Louis, he described growing up in Nigeria during the 1960s, when civil war forced him and his family to leave their home and spend years looking for a safe place to live.

Physicist Pablo Sobron uses a spectrometer to examine the terrain of a site in the Canadian High Arctic, where a hot spring existed in the distant past.
Dale Anderson, provided by Pablo Sobron

For years, scientists have picked apart data transmitted from Mars probes to find signs of life on the red planet. But since the Martian landscape is too harsh to support most kinds of life, some scientists in St. Louis travel to remote places to study life that thrives in extreme environments.

If life exists on Mars, scientists think it’s likely in the form of tiny organisms that live underground, because the surface receives large amounts of radiation. Mars missions have also revealed that the planet has large concentrations of a toxic, salty substance called perchlorate. Life on Mars would likely be able to tolerate dry, salty environments, so researchers have looked for similar places on Earth.

A home in St. Francois County undergoing remediation for lead contamination
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The number of homes contaminated by Missouri’s historic lead mining continues to grow as Environmental Protection Agency officials test more residential yards in St. Francois County.

EPA officials are meeting with communities this week to expand its soil sampling efforts and receive feedback on its plan to clean up the Big River Mine Tailings Superfund site. Representatives of the federal agency had their first meeting with residents on Monday in Bismarck, about 80 miles south of St. Louis. Officials found high levels of lead, or concentrations above 400 parts per million, in 96 out of the 122 residential yards they tested in Bismarck. They began testing in the city in 2014.

Solar panels
File photo| Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio

Clean-energy companies in Missouri are finding it difficult to hire qualified workers, even as the number of residents in the state working in energy efficiency, electric transportation and renewable energy grows.

A report released this week by business group Environmental Entrepreneurs and environmental think tank Clean Energy Trust said the low unemployment rate could be one factor, as a shortage of job seekers is affecting many industries. It also pointed to federal policies, such as the Trump administration’s decision to impose a tariff on imported solar panels, as another potential challenge that’s suppressing growth among clean energy companies.

Refab, a salvage yard in south St. Louis
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

As more vacant buildings come down in north St. Louis next year, workers will be taking some of them apart to salvage and resell valuable architectural materials.

The Green City Coalition, a collaboration of government and nonprofit groups that aims to build green spaces in north St. Louis, plans to deconstruct 30 houses owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority.

Washington University biologists holding a glass jar containing bacteria that have been engineered to use nitrogen from the atmosphere to help it grow.
Joe Angeles | Washington University

Someday, farmers may no longer need to use fertilizer for their crops. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have recently made a crucial step toward engineering plants to fertilize themselves.

Plants need nitrogen to grow, and, in nature, they absorb the nutrient from dead plants. In agriculture, farmers apply fertilizer, as crops alone cannot convert nitrogen from the air into ammonia. Because fertilizer pollutes the environment and is costly for farmers in developing countries, scientists have long researched ways to engineer plants to convert nitrogen by themselves.

In the journal mBio, Wash U researchers reported that they’ve genetically engineered a species of bacteria to use nitrogen from the air to grow.

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