Sarah Spaulding’s contributions to the aquatic sciences represent a career-long dedication and vision to improve science through coordination of research, unparalleled teaching and mentorship, and accessibility and engagement of all. Sarah modernized the field of diatom systematics and the use of diatoms as biological indicators in water quality monitoring programs by leading the design and development of Diatoms of North America ( The website makes information about diatom taxonomy, ecology, and distribution accessible to all. It is a trusted resource used by students, federal monitoring programs, environmental consultants, and academic researchers; it serves as a standard reference for diatom taxonomic certification exams. Sarah continues to lead innovative improvements to the website to meet user needs. The website surpassed 1,070 peer-reviewed taxon pages and has started filling an important gap – marine diatom taxa. In addition, facilitates international collaboration among more than 100 contributors and provides a platform for education and science communication, such as the Diatom Web Academy. Since 2020, the Diatom Web Academy has recorded nearly 60 webinars with over 15,000 views and has greatly contributed to utility and accuracy of quantifying diatoms in the environment.

Federal monitoring programs approached Sarah and colleagues about taxonomic errors in national survey datasets, presenting a challenging situation to navigate given the possibility of unusable data and resources lost. Confidence and trust in using diatoms as indicators in monitoring programs were at a low point, despite decades of research on diatoms as sensitive indicators of acidification, eutrophication, etc., and their importance as the base of the aquatic food web. Sarah faced the challenge head on and coordinated multiple lines of research to address the concerns. She managed the BioData database of algal species names reported in the USGS NAWQA program, updating the database to keep track of the many nomenclatural changes buried in the vast literature. She continued to build, so that reliance on European floras and perpetuation of taxonomic errors may discontinue for North American taxa. Her research group published voucher floras, image-based documentation and reporting of taxonomy, as a way to reduce uncertainty and improve the accuracy and transparency of diatom datasets. This has inspired other researchers and the U.S. EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment to develop voucher flora. The efforts led by Sarah to develop multiple tools and best practices are changing the way state agencies and regional collaboratives use diatom data and are keeping diatoms foundational in national, state, and local monitoring programs.

Earlier in her career, Sarah recognized the need for Antarctic research groups to coordinate their efforts. The result was an online Antarctic diatom taxonomic database, itself a template for Sarah also coordinated a global research response to the range expansion of the diatom Didymosphenia geminata (didymo) into oligotrophic streams worldwide by gathering international groups of researchers multiple times to share perspectives, results, and prioritize research directions. Sarah’s didymo strategy included training highschoolers to graduate students, challenging them to understand the ecology of didymo. Recently, she has taken on the work of harmonizing a national dataset of chlorophyll measurements in the Water Quality Portal to support research on harmful algal blooms. Sarah found that despite the widespread measurement of chlorophyll a, there is persistent misunderstanding and misuse of basic terminology resulting in unclear or incorrectly characterized chlorophyll measurements. Again, Sarah is improving methods and advancing data management practices to support water resource protection.

Sarah also exemplifies what it means to teach and mentor for the future of science. Since 1963, the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory has offered one of the only courses on the ecology and systematics of diatoms in the world. Sarah taught the class for 15 years (2000-2014) and brought course goals and student outcomes into the 21st century. She guided modernization of the teaching space, formalized scholarships, secured research grade microscopes for every student, and shifted the focus of the class to research skill development and applications. By the end of her tenure, students were contributing their research-quality publications to and tackling their own research with Sarah’s guidance. Beyond the classroom, Sarah is an exceptional mentor and helped early career professionals find their place in academia, private consulting companies, and public service. Sarah also serves the international science community, which now includes her upcoming role of President of the International Society of Diatom Research. A unique ability to move beyond the institutional inertial path is seen again and again in Sarah. Her work is founded in critical questioning, a drive for access and inclusivity, and an uncanny ease for developing collaborations. Even when the challenges seem daunting, Sarah perseveres.

The award will be presented at the National Monitoring Conference on April 27, 2023 in Virginia Beach, VA.

Elizabeth Jester Fellows was the Director of the EPA’s Assessment and Watershed Protection Division until her death in November 2000. She dedicated her career to natural resources management, environmental protection, and public service. Elizabeth was the EPA co-chair of the Intergovernmental Task Force on Monitoring (ITFM) and envisioned the creation of its successor, the National Water Quality Monitoring Council. She was a strong and effective advocate for developing a nationwide framework for coordinating, collecting, assessing, and communicating water quality monitoring information and results. Elizabeth was the personification of the goals and ideals of the monitoring Council, and her legacy has been an inspiration to those who have followed her and continue the Council’s work. In her memory, the Council has established the Elizabeth Jester Fellows Award to recognize individuals for outstanding achievement, exemplary service, and distinguished leadership in water quality monitoring and environmental protection.