A Double Dose of Hands-On Learning

On the banks of the Fox River, just a short stroll from Lake Winnebago, a nondescript building houses one of the state’s most important research and training hubs for environmental health and safety.

Since opening in 2008, the Environmental Research and Innovation Center (ERIC) has partnered with county health departments, local communities and individual members of the public on a range of projects, including monitoring the safety of well water and recreational beaches. Graduate and undergraduate students training at the facility learn the same rigorous, standardized testing procedures used at high-profile national labs.

“In most water fields, you really have to be comfortable with both lab and field work,” says ERIC Director Greg Kleinheinz, a UW-Oshkosh environmental engineer and microbiologist. “One of the unique things our students get is that combination of hands-on work.”

Now, thanks to support from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, ERIC will roll out a new training opportunity for undergraduate students across the state. Beginning with four students in early 2021, the program will offer both online and hands-on lab training, followed by a summerlong experience at a field station in Door County’s Sturgeon Bay. The project allows for customized areas of focus and scheduling so each student can build a program that best suits their interests and needs.

Kleinheinz says the project has value well beyond preparing individual students for a career in water.

“I see this as a catalyst to increase collaboration,” says Kleinheinz.

The FCW-funded project, like the FCW itself, is about combining the unique resources at 13 campuses into a single freshwater sciences powerhouse.

“In a time of limited fiscal resources, there’s no sense in duplicating efforts,” Kleinheinz says. “Taxpayers have invested in our facility. Let’s make it available to students across campuses. It’s a much more efficient use of resources.”

Serious Mussel Power

Mussels sometimes get a bad rap, thanks to destructive invasive species. While these unwelcome outsiders stir up trouble, dozens of native mussel species are quietly going about their business, cleaning our water and serving as sentinels for the health of entire ecosystems.

“Mussels filter feed a huge amount of water. It’s insane how much they filter,” says Becky Doyle-Morin, UW-Platteville freshwater invertebrate ecologist. “They’re helping to clean waterways, like little vacuums or pool filters.”

As these hardworking bivalves suck in water, food particles and sediment, they’re also taking in any pollutants in the environment. As Doyle-Morin puts it, “What’s in the water determines whether they thrive.”

Studying the size and health of native mussel populations provides researchers with crucial data about water quality and the stability of entire food webs, including fish that might end up on your plate.

But to monitor and protect native mussel populations, first you have to find them.

“Wisconsin waterways have some of the most diverse mussel communities in the world,” says evolutionary ecologist Gretchen Gerrish, director of the Trout Lake Station in Vilas County. And while mussels around the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries have been well-documented, many other populations remain unstudied.

Gerrish and Doyle-Morin plan to fill in some of the gaps while also providing the next generation of researchers with invaluable skills. With support from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, their team of undergraduates has begun surveying locations in southwestern Wisconsin. They’ll also study North Woods sites around Trout Lake Station, which is operated by UW-Madison’s Center for Limnology.

“The project spans the state, linking regions that might not otherwise be connected,” Gerrish says.

Those connections will soon stretch all the way to Australia. The diversity of Wisconsin’s native mussel species, and the high caliber of the research already underway here, has attracted scientists from Murdoch University in Perth. Doyle-Morin and Gerrish are building an exchange program with their Australian colleagues. The collaboration will send Wisconsin undergrads Down Under and allow Murdoch students to train here, in the Freshwater Mussel Capital of the World.

A Great Lake’s Unwanted “Diamonds”

“Plastics can be like diamonds: forever,” says Lorena Rios Mendoza. The UW-Superior environmental chemist studies how the nonbiodegradable synthetic materials get into Lake Superior and the problems they can cause as they fragment or absorb toxic chemicals also present in the environment.

Rios Mendoza focuses on microplastics, pieces smaller than a pea, that may look like food to fish and other lake dwellers. When the organisms eat the synthetic materials, they also ingest any toxic chemicals the plastics have picked up. Some of these compounds can cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems for animals higher up the food chain – including us.

Now, Rios Mendoza is working with colleagues from UW-Madison, UW-Eau Claire and the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, with support from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, to answer key questions about Superior’s tiny troublemakers.

“We know the sources of the microplastics. They enter Superior through the St. Louis River and other tributaries that move the microplastics into the lake,” Rios Mendoza says. “But what is the distribution? What is the speed and flow? How are they transported?”

In summer 2021, Rios Mendoza and her team will collect samples from both western Lake Superior and the nearby St. Louis River estuary. Most previous sampling collected material from the lake’s surface. The new project will also sample various depths of the water column and the lake bottom, where many heavier, denser microplastics are likely to be found.

Colleagues across the state will analyze the samples to learn more about how the microplastics interact with the Lake Superior ecosystem and, potentially, how to reduce the damage they’re doing to even the greatest of Great Lakes.

“If you compare Lake Superior and Lake Erie, Lake Erie is small and shallow and surrounded by a lot of people, so the pollutants are right there,” says Rios Mendoza. “Lake Superior is huge and deep, and people say ‘Oh, it’s the cleanest.’ But it’s not really clean. We still find things.”